English football’s axis of power has shifted south – where the wealth is

The relegation of Hull, Middlesbrough and Sunderland, teams from former industrial powerhouse cities, reflects the country’s growing economic divide

Last Sunday, Hull City dropped out of the Premier League following a 4-0 hammering at Crystal Palace. The scoreline triggered, for me, ironic memories of the Housemartins’ first album, released 31 years ago.

London 0 Hull 4 remains an iconic record, a catchy protest masterpiece that has survived the vagaries of time, musical fashion and being namechecked by David Cameron. Back in 1986, of course, its very title struck a note of northern defiance, a two-fingered riposte to the capital’s moneyed elite in a decade when Westminster was waging war on the industrial heartlands. Three decades on, in the words of my favourite track off the “fourth best band in Hull”’s poptastic classic, it made me Think for a Minute.

Palace 4 Hull 0 should give everyone pause for thought. The thumping ensured the East Yorkshire strugglers were relegated alongside Middlesbrough and Sunderland, two other clubs representing left-behind northern areas. The southern dominance of our national sport was confirmed by Chelsea’s title triumph and the runners-up spot going to Tottenham Hotspur. The FA Cup final is between Arsenal and Chelsea. Unless Huddersfield Town win the play-off final, next season’s top flight will feature only six northern clubs, the lowest in the competition’s history.

Football is now as lopsided as the economy. Since the 2008 banking collapse, the economic gap between north and south has grown even wider. As countless surveys have established, this has been reflected in education, culture and employment – in the last decade, for every 12 new jobs created in the south of England, only one has been created anywhere else.

Ever since the destructive 1980s, former industrial powerhouses – such as Hull, Middlesbrough and Sunderland – have struggled to fill the holes left by their disappearing ports, mines, steel factories and shipyards. Thatcherism oversaw the destruction of traditional, mutually self-sustaining, communities following a manufacturing collapse that wiped out almost a fifth of Britain’s industrial base. As London has boomed – it now has a quarter of the nation’s economic activity – there has been a reshaping of the footballing landscape.

This is the perfect metaphor for a growing divisiveness in society that infected first the Brexit vote and now the general election. In the year I spent researching my book A Yorkshire Tragedy, two things became clear. First, that many of the football teams from the Broad Acres were no longer playing on an even financial playing field with their southern rivals. And second, since the evisceration of the communities that sustained its teams, large swaths of the White Rose county had been disenfranchised by a global footballing order perceived to be out of touch and capricious. Almost two-thirds of the people of South Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, a two-fingered riposte to what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

The People’s Game was born in the north of England. Six Lancashire and six Midlands teams formed the first ever Football League in 1888. But, as Sky pundit Gary Neville lamented recently, “The investment is into the south. I heard a few weeks ago ridiculous talk of northern teams, north-east teams and Yorkshire teams having London training grounds. The players would live in London in the week and then travel to games. Suggestions like this are being mooted and that’s scary.”

With Brighton returning to the top division for the first time in 34 years, and other south coast sides such as Southampton and Bournemouth joining six London teams in the top flight, the southward shift in the axis of power is complete. London’s footballing base, like its economy, has undergone a profound change, becoming a place where overseas investors park their wealth. The richest city in the world provides some of its richest football teams, attracting the interest of oligarchs, sheikhs and American venture capitalists. In the New Football Era, with the exception of the two global brands in Manchester, the balance of power has shifted away from northern clubs towards Arsenal, Chelsea and now Tottenham.

Neville, of course, was part of Alex Ferguson’s great Manchester United team that, until recently, ruled the English game. With their noisy neighbours, Manchester City, the team’s success is often cited as evidence that a northern sensibility continues to hold sway. However, putting aside the fact that in the four years since Fergie announced his retirement United have posted only one top-four finish, Neville’s point about the lure of London remains a pertinent one. Billionaire owners prefer the “glamorous” south, with its good transport links. Even United’s coach José Mourinho lives in a Manchester hotel and travels back to London after games.

If northern clubs do decide to base their training facilities in the south, this will be the final nail in the coffin. At the end of the Thatcher era, I saw the Housemartins. They were supported by the Proclaimers, who belted out Letter From America, an anthem linking the Highland clearances with the industrial shutdowns. The song’s famous refrain must now be adapted for the New Football Era: “Leeds no more, Sunderland no more, Sheffield no more …”

• Anthony Clavane’s latest book, A Yorkshire Tragedy (Riverrun), is out now