One of the stories that will not go away in American sport right now is the prospect of an NFL franchise being relocated to London and staging its home games at Wembley Stadium.
That in itself is no real surprise, considering the success of the NFL International Series fixtures, which have played to sellout crowds at Wembley ever since the Miami Dolphins “hosted” the New York Giants at the stadium in October 2007.
The interesting angle to the potential arrival of an American football franchise in England, however, is the suggestion that the team would continue to base itself in the United States, pitching its training base on the East Coast or in Florida in order both to reduce travel times for road trips within the US and also avoid potential working visa issues in this country.
Relocation is no big deal in the States. Just last week, the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers and St Louis Rams all applied to the NFL for permission to move to Los Angeles and restore gridiron to America’s second-largest city for the first time in more than 20 years.
In this country, any such mention of a club moving prompts howls of derision and protest from those likely to be disenfranchised, with MK Dons still regarded as football pariahs by many fans, having consumed the old Wimbledon FC before moving 80 miles north to Milton Keynes in 2003.
MK Dons’ owner, Pete Winkelman, while now conceding that his decision to rename and relocate Wimbledon caused unnecessary trauma to many, will undoubtedly regard the move as being justified, however, with the club now playing to substantial crowds in the Championship in the ultra-modern 30,500-capacity Stadium mk.
It would still take a brave owner to consider following Winkelman’s blueprint, though, in order to make their club more competitive, on and off the field, but what if the watered-down version being discussed in the States becomes an option?
How would supporters react if they were told that, in order to attract better players, their club would be relocating its training ground to London and that its players and coaching staff would also live in and around the capital?
When Liverpool missed out on the signing of Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona in the summer of 2014, one of the central factors in the Chilean’s decision to join Arsenal was a desire to live in London rather than Merseyside. The lure of London, and the appeal of living in one of the world’s great cities, is why Watford are now so keen to position themselves as a London club, rather than one with its heart in Hertfordshire.
In a race to sign a new player, location can be the trump card and both Chelsea and Arsenal have capitalised on being London clubs when dealing in the transfer market, with Eden Hazard rejecting both Manchester City and Manchester United in 2012 to move to Stamford Bridge.
Before this begins to read like an advertisement for the London Tourist Board, I should make clear that my roots are firmly in the north of England, with the footballing institutions of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds all less than an hour from my hometown. But unpalatable as it will be to those based north of the Watford Gap, there is now an accelerating shift towards London and the south and the days of football being dominated by a northern powerhouse are over.
When Bournemouth can attract the likes of Juan Iturbe from Roma, at a time when Newcastle and Sunderland are struggling to convince any player of note to play in the football hotbed of the North-east, what does it say for two of the game’s most historic clubs? Newcastle could not hold on to Yohan Cabaye, but when the French midfielder chose to leave Paris Saint-Germain last summer he was more than happy to move to London with Crystal Palace.
So what if Mike Ashley considered shifting Newcastle’s training base and playing set-up to London? Steve McClaren’s squad would train as they do on Tyneside, but rather than finish their training and then head off to the Metro Centre, they could instead stroll through Knightsbridge, play golf in Surrey or even take their family around the sights of the capital.
None of the above relate to football, but these off-field attractions matter and if a club’s location puts it at a disadvantage when attempting to attract better players, how long before measures such as part-relocation are considered?
Angel Di Maria and his family simply could not settle in Manchester last season, forcing even United to accept that their history, tradition and £250,000-a-week wages were not enough to keep a millionaire footballer happy in leafy Cheshire.
Pablo Zabaleta, City’s Argentine defender who has settled in the Manchester suburb of Didsbury, is an exception nowadays in the sense of a foreign player laying down roots and embracing the community in which he lives.
Clearly, the community aspect of a team playing in one city but spending every day bar match day somewhere else would perhaps be damaged irreparably if 200 miles separated the training ground and stadium. But so many clubs now train behind high walls or in unreachable, out-of-town complexes that contact between players and supporters is already limited to staged community events or brief glimpses from behind a barrier at home games.
When Bradford City progressed to the Capital One Cup final as a League Two club in 2013, it went unnoticed that more than half of Phil Parkinson’s squad shared lifts to travel to West Yorkshire from Liverpool and Manchester on a daily basis, so even in the lower leagues players have long since stopped living among their club’s supporters. The game is changing and clubs and their owners will continue to dream up and consider all kinds of short cuts to success.
Yet maybe it is not a new problem for clubs like Newcastle. When Kevin Keegan persuaded Robert Lee to leave Charlton Athletic for St James’ Park in September 1992, it was a straight fight between Newcastle and Middlesbrough, then a division higher in the newly formed Premier League for the midfielder. Keegan got the deal over the line, however, by informing the trusting young Lee that Newcastle was the place for him because it was closer to London than Middlesbrough.
Little white lies are unlikely to prove quite so convincing to modern-day players and agents, though.
Refunds probably required at Old Trafford this year
Perhaps Manchester United’s owners, the Glazer family, deserve credit for freezing season-ticket prices for the sixth time in seven years ahead of the 2016-17 campaign, but the Americans are smart businessmen and will know that the recent fare at Old Trafford could not justify a price hike.
Saturday’s narrow FA Cup victory against Sheffield United saw Louis van Gaal’s team fail to score in the first half for the 10th successive home game, so there may even be an argument to refund those who have had to endure such a dismal return on their season-ticket money this season.
Are Arsenal great pretenders again or the real deal?
This time next week, we will know whether Arsenal are the real deal in the title race or just another incarnation of the flaky, post-Invincibles teams that have repeatedly failed to deliver the Premier League trophy to the Emirates.
For any team with title aspirations, back-to-back away games at Liverpool and Stoke would be a challenge, but they are an acid test for Arsenal.
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