North-west passage to pre-eminence is a passing phase

Olivia Blair
Friday 09 May 1997 23:02

There can't currently be much to depress Tony Blair, but the events of Tuesday night must have put a dampener on his mood. Being an alleged Newcastle fan, it must have been galling for the PM to see Manchester United win the championship again and to note that - to paraphrase the Conservative election slogan - the North-west (at least in football terms) is booming.

Look no further than the winners of this season's championships from the Premiership to the Vauxhall Conference: United, Bolton, Bury, Wigan and Macclesfield, all situated within a 20-mile radius of Manchester. There's no historical precedent of such a whitewash, and before we get carried away and predict an era of North-west domination, the reality is that it's unlikely to happen again.

Football is, by nature cyclical. And just as every dog - and every political party - has its day, so the same applies to football. In the early 1990s the North-east had to live with its big three languishing in the Second Division, and Hartlepool and Darlington lying low in the Fourth.

East Anglia found itself in the doldrums in 1994-95 when both Norwich and Ipswich were relegated from the Premiership and Colchester could only manage 17th place in the Third. By the time the following season had ended, a cloud had settled over the South Coast. Southampton scraped survival in the Premiership; ditto Portsmouth in the First Division; Brighton were relegated from the Second; Torquay were spared demotion to the Conference only by the inadequacies of Stevenage's ground; and even Poole Town ended up rock bottom in the Beazer Homes League Southern Division with just one point. This season the cloud has barely lifted over Brighton and Bournemouth, and still hovers over Southampton.

At least Leicester have restored some Midlands pride by winning the Coca- Cola Cup. But with Forest already relegated, Coventry looking doomed, and sleeping giants like Birmingham and West Brom seemingly unable to rouse themselves, the Midlands - like the Tory party - is a shadow of its former self.

Most surprising of all is the perennial failure of the capital to assert itself. London teams have claimed the League championship just five times in the last 42 years - about as often as Britain's had a Labour government. Theories abound as to why London football can barely hold a candle to northern rivals. The most popular one is that London teams are distracted by the number of derbies they face - which is a lame excuse. Not even the north London derby, which is no picnic, can compare to the fervour of a Manchester or Mersey derby, or even to the passion generated when United play Liverpool or Leeds.

It has nothing to do, either, with a dearth of London-born players, since in 1970 there were just 47 Londoners in the top flight; by 1994-95 that figure had risen to 94. Rather, the key lies not on the field, but on the terraces. Although the football world loves to rile Manchester United fans as coming from anywhere but Manchester, northern fans tend to have stronger ties with - and feel more passionate about - their club, a passion which is communicated to the players.

Yorkshireman Graham Rix once admitted he thought Arsenal lacked the kind of ruthless streak that always saw, say, Liverpool out of trouble. Or perhaps it was just that some London-based players had an alternative agenda. When Charlie Nicholas was asked what he enjoyed about playing in London, he replied: "Well I never went to Stringfellows that much. I preferred Tramp."

Such abject failure by a capital city is by no means unique to this country. The French League has been dominated by southern clubs like Marseilles and Monaco; Paris St-Germain have won the championship twice during their 27-year existence, while only one of the capital's other clubs has won a title: Racing Club Paris, back in 1936.

In Italy the northern clubs have enjoyed an almost unbreakable stranglehold over Serie A since it began in 1930; Napoli (in 1990 and 1997), Roma in 1983, Lazio (in 1974) and Cagliari (in 1970) have been the south's only triumphs. But Ray Wilkins, who's had experience of playing in all three Leagues, claims that while the strength of England's North- west teams is "frightening", there's no evidence to suggest that a north/south divide exists in England as it does in Italy.

"The southern Italian clubs feel a bit hard done to," Wilkins says, "while the northern ones consider themselves superior. Their fans are no less passionate, but the southern teams aren't held in the same high regard, even though Napoli have attracted players like Maradona, Careca, Krol and Zola. But I don't believe there's any prejudice in this country. Years ago more players migrated south to north; now it works both ways. And although fans in the north are probably a touch more passionate, this North-west domination is just coincidence; a bunch of good managers and good players coming together at the same time."

Of course Wilkins has also had first-hand experience of Scottish football, where the teams in the capital - Tony Blair's birthplace - have even less to crow about than London's. Hibs and Hearts have amassed just eight titles between them; in fact, the only Scottish club to have posed a serious threat to the Old Firm's stranglehold is Aberdeen, who won consecutive League titles in 1984 and 1985... under a certain Alex Ferguson.

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