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London's big clubs promised much, but only Arsenal have won regular league championships. Mike Ticher wonders why

There is no particular reason why a capital city should produce successful or popular football clubs. In fact in Europe the opposite seems the case. The records of the main clubs in Berlin and Paris are woeful. Roma and Lazio have won just four Italian titles between them. London’s part in English football history is also one of potential only partly fulfilled, char­acterised by lots of cup triumphs but few league titles (Arsenal ex­cepted), by huge spectator support, a proliferation of middle-ranking clubs – far more than any other city in Europe – and a patchwork of interesting but rarely mutual rivalries.

What shaped London football? First, late development. The Football League, as everyone knows, was founded with six clubs from the midlands and six from Lancashire and professionalism remained largely a northern preserve until the turn of the century. It was more than 40 years after the founding of the League before a London team won it.

Then there was the very size and wealth of the city. London was built on trade, not manufacturing, and the British empire made for an awful lot of trade. By 1900 London already had six million people and land in the heart of town, covered by the big private estates, was vastly expensive and jealously preserved. That kept the railway companies at a distance (bounded by the Circle Line which links their terminuses) and the Johnny-come-lately football clubs too. Though Chel­sea, geographically closest to the West End, toyed with calling themselves London FC, England’s capital would never have a Real Madrid, plonked in the fash­ionable central area and psychologically geared up to dominate the rest. Its clubs were destined, to a greater or lesser extent, to be suburban.

That is one reason why there are so many of them of roughly comparable size. Yet London’s football might have developed along a slightly more streamlined pattern but for one man. Henry Norris was a property developer (of course), became mayor of Fulham before the First World War, and was later an MP. But his impact on the capital’s football clubs was greater than anything he achieved in politics.

As a director of Fulham, it was Norris who persuaded the club to reject the offer of his rival west London developer Gus Mears to move into the new Stamford Bridge. As Simon Inglis notes in The Football Grounds of Great Britain: “Has any other director’s decision… borne such major consequences for so many clubs?” Fulham’s rejection of Stamford Bridge led to the creation of a brand new club, Chelsea. They quickly left Norris’s Fulham in the shade and he crossed town to Arsenal, then based in Woolwich. Failing to persuade the League to allow a mer­ger with Fulham, he instead moved Arsenal to Highbury in 1913, which not only sparked im­mediate, bitter rivalry with their new neighbours Tottenham, but also open­ed the way for Charlton to establish them­selves on Arsenal’s old patch in the south east.

So Norris left behind a map of London football which had two well-matched and powerful rivals in the north east and two slightly more uneven competitors next door to each other in the south west. Without him, it is plausible to suggest, London might have ended up with one big club in the north (Tottenham), one in the west (Fulham, at Stamford Bridge) and one in the east, where West Ham, in more typically “northern” fashion, had grown out of and drew support from an industrial working-class community. Crystal Palace continue to insist that they could complete the picture by tapping into the huge population south of the river, but in truth that has always been an unlikely dream, since Selhurst Park’s transport links are so poor com­pared to almost every other London club.

The idea that London’s clubs have “under-ach­ieved” needs to be qualified. Arsenal clearly have not, by any standards. Tottenham have won a lot of cups, but only two league titles; Chelsea and West Ham the occasional cup and even European trophies, but only one championship between them. For the rest, Charlton’s 1947 FA Cup win, QPR’s League Cup 20 years later and Wimbledon’s 1988 triumph is all there is to show. Yet it is the failure of the bigger clubs to challenge for the league title that defines London football – Arsenal apart, none has come closer in the four decades since Tot­tenham’s last victory than QPR’s mot­ley crew in 1976. London clubs, the record suggests, are inconsistent, suspect away from home, flashy but brittle. Why?

It is tempting to suggest that, thanks to Norris, there are too many of them competing for the same aud­ience. Yet the figures do not support that idea. Far from dividing their crowds, the competition between Ars­enal and Tottenham seems only to have increased them. Despite Arsenal’s dominance in the Thirties, Spurs too had huge attendances. In 1932-33 they drew the second highest average in the country, behind Arsenal, even though they were in the Second Division. Chelsea, too, were a crowd-pulling phenomenon from their earliest days and through most of the trophyless decades that followed.

Perhaps, then, the nature of that support might have something to do with it. London crowds were certainly drawn from a socially more diverse population than their big northern rivals and perhaps one more easily persuaded to watch, say, Chelsea one week and Fulham the next than to develop a single-minded partisanship that would make the home ground a fortress. Perhaps. But that would hardly explain why West Ham, with its fierce sense of community and tight, intimidating ground, fared no better.

My guess is the answer to London’s oddly unproductive record has little to do either with an over-proliferation of clubs or the nature of its support and certainly not with the “southern softie” stereotype beloved of the media and northern fans (happy to point out Chelsea’s weakness on their travels – less eager to write off Newcastle as “northern nancies” because they have not won in the capital for three years). For one thing, their players have often not been southern at all. London’s clubs, like those throughout England, have never drawn exclusively or even mostly on players from their own area. No one ever called Dave Mackay southern or soft and lived to tell the tale.

The reason is probably more prosaic, namely that any club that has won multiple titles, at least since the First World War, has needed the influence of an all-powerful personality, an autocratic gen­ius to take them beyond the pack. Arse­nal had the original in Her­bert Chapman. Busby made Manchester United, and Fer­­guson re­made them. Leeds and Liverpool were med­iocre scrap­­pers be­fore Revie and Shankly ar­rived; Nottingham For­est and Der­by were trans­for­med by Clough.

Apart from Chapman and, to a lesser extent, Bill Nicholson, whose Tottenham team never quite built on the double and the cups of the early Sixties, the big London clubs have lacked such Svengalis to turn potential into silverware. West Ham had great coaches and admirable loyalty to them, but Ron Greenwood was not exactly the ruthless bully that title-winning sides seem to need. Chelsea, above all, never found the leadership to build either the team or the stadium to match their crowds. In his history of the club John Moynihan recalls that in the late Fifties (Chelsea won the title in 1955 remember) “discipline was lax, laughs many, results fickle”. Jim­my Greaves said of that team that it “had more potential than any other team I have ever played for. But… it was like being at Butlin’s, a real holiday camp atmosphere.”

Maybe now it’s too late. These things become in­grained, and the psychological stumbling block which prevents Chelsea, West Ham or Tottenham winning the league seems to cripple them whether their players come from Bermondsey or Buenos Aires. In fact, the pull of the capital for high-profile foreigners has only given a new twist to the old tale. Players like Ruud Gullit, Paolo Di Canio and David Ginola melted seamlessly into the traditional image of their respective clubs. Arsenal have made a hero out of Gilles Grimandi. Their dominance is surely secure.

From WSC 167 January 2001. What was happening this month