Question: What's the link between the top 13 clubs in the Premiership table?

The clue is where they come from, and it is a striking example of where power lies in English football. Paul Newman reports
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The Independent Online

It is a statistic to have John Motson in paroxysms of delight or to send smoke pouring out of the computers of members of the Association of Football Statisticians.

As the accompanying map shows, today's Premiership table has a remarkable geographical bias. Thirteen clubs in the division are from London or the North-west and they occupy the first 13 places in the table. There only seven teams in the Premiership from outside these two regions - and they fill the bottom seven positions.

Since Aston Villa won the championship in 1981, the title has been won only once - Leeds United in 1992 - by a club from outside the game's two modern power bases. In the last 40 years there have been only three seasons when fewer than three teams from outside London and the North-west finished in the top flight's top 10 and two of those were in the last three seasons: last year (Middlesbrough and Aston Villa) and 2002-03 (Newcastle and Southampton). The other season was 1990-91 (Leeds and Nottingham Forest).

The FA Cup also reflects the pattern. Coventry City (1987) were the last club from outside the two regions to win the Cup, while the last final contested by two "outsiders" was in 1973 (Sunderland v Leeds).

There is every chance that this season will be the first in history when the top 10 League places - and possibly the top 13 - will be filled exclusively by teams from London and the North-west. Newcastle United and Aston Villa are the best placed to break into the top half, but they currently have to bridge a five-point gap with the 10th-placed side. If Fulham have a decent run-in there is every chance that London and the North-west will continue to fill the top 13 places until the end of the season.

Of course, there are quirks that partly explain this season's geographical make-up. The North- west's smaller Premiership clubs (Bolton, Wigan and Blackburn) are enjoying particularly good seasons. Charlton and Fulham continue to punch above their weight, West Ham are enjoying one of their better top-flight campaigns, Newcastle and Aston Villa are not. London clubs that have often lurked in the highest division's murkier depths in the past, such as Crystal Palace and Queen's Park Rangers, are now bigger fish in smaller ponds.

However, John Williams, senior lecturer in the Centre for the Sociology of Sport at the University of Leicester, sees a logic behind the trend, particularly in terms of the success of the biggest clubs in the capital and the North-west in an era of increasing commercialisation and globalisation. He believes the popularity of their "brands" will continue to strengthen their hand.

"The brands of the major London clubs have always been strong and they have a particular economic advantage," Williams said yesterday. "The successful brands of the North-west's big-city clubs, and Manchester United and Liverpool in particular, go back to their success from the 1960s through to the late 1980s.

"With Manchester United it all dates back to Munich and the building of the team by Matt Busby and others. With Liverpool it's all to do with their post-Shankly success and the emergence of Liverpool as a centre of popular culture in the 1960s. The clubs have built on those images to develop their brands."

Williams believes the brand image is particularly important in the recruitment of the better overseas players. "Birmingham, for example, has no powerful brand image abroad," Williams said. "Their clubs have had very little success over the last 50 years or so. Aston Villa won one League title and, extraordinarily, one European Cup, but most people see that as a blip in an era when the large European clubs were constrained from signing foreign players.

"Now, when the market is much freer, the big global football cities like Milan, Turin, Madrid, Barcelona, London, Manchester and Liverpool are the big players. And that is likely to be self-reinforcing. In terms of lifestyle and travel the London clubs, in particular, have a huge advantage. They also offer - as the North-west clubs do - a chance to be in the company of a lot of other foreign players.

"The only way that Blackburn and now Wigan have been able to enjoy success has been through a very significant local benefactor.

"Fulham are much the same in London, though Charlton are very different. Their success has clearly been built on recruiting - and, more importantly, keeping - a very good manager and on developing an identity as an authentic community club."

Williams says the long-term fate of clubs can depend on one person and that Newcastle, for example, might well have enjoyed Liverpool's success if they had employed Bill Shankly.

"There is no logical reason why Newcastle haven't won a major domestic trophy for more than 50 years," Williams said. "Success breeds success. I think it's much more difficult to break a cycle of success than it is to break a cycle of failure and Newcastle are a good example of that."

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