Has the Premier League made football more unequal?

12 Dec

One of the complaints most commonly levelled at football is that since the advent of the Premier-league there has been a growing disparity between the haves and have not’s. The league has become too uneven: It’s a debate which almost seems to mirror anxiety about growing inequality in wider-society – something clubs with millionare players and near minimum-wage caterers are also part of.

Leaving some of these other issues behind the first challenge is how to measure on-pitch inequality. Football – to the analysts delight -provides a wealth of measures on almost any subject, and the same is true here. We could look solely at honours and titles, points gained, goals scored, or conceded. We could also look at the divide between the top 10 per cent and the rest, or the top 25 per cent, or 50 per cent and so on.

The relative closeness of teams, in a sporting sense, can be measured quite simply by looking at the number of wins each club has gained over the course of a season. This can then be computed into an average number of wins, from which we can calculate the standard deviation, a measure of how spread out clubs are from the average. The assumption is that clubs in more even leagues will tend to have a number of wins closer to the overall average – in a very even league, for instance, clubs should have around the same number of wins

Going one step further, we can work out the coefficient of variation. This is the standard deviation as the proportion of the average which allows us to better compare leagues across time (this is because a season with a high number of wins overall is likely to increase the standard deviation and what we are interested in is the relative share of wins). In effect a higher percentage means that the standard deviation is high relative to the mean and therefore the number of wins recorded by clubs in that league is more spread out and the league uneven.

CV graph

Doing this results in an interesting chart. The beginning of the Premier-League era does result in a sharp increase in the coefficient from 25.9% in 1991-92 to 38.1% in 1993-94 so it would appear that yes, the Premier League has resulted in a league which is less competitive overall, however, this needs to be looked at against the historical trend. If we look back to the 1930s we can see that despite fluctuations that there has been a general underlying trend for the league to become less equal over the whole period.

With the premier league not taking place until 1992 What then, has driven this trend?

Looking back to the 1930s even with what was on paper the best team. Inclement weather conditions, poor pitches, long journey times, poor officiating and injuries could all conspire to affect the final result. With no substitutions one-knock could reduce a team, if not in actual numbers, then in effect to 10 men. Fortune, or rather misfortune, could therefore play a much bigger role in deciding the outcome of games.

It was in 1965-66 the league first allowed one substitute, for cases of injury. The decade also saw the abolition of the maximum-wage for footballers in 1961. This was accompanied by some of the biggest increases in the coefficient, from 23.2% in 1961-62 to 41.0% by the end of the decade in 1969-70

Undoubtedly the premier-league marked a big change, or rather the confluence of several big changes. Following the Taylor report clubs began, to invest heavily in infrastructure – upgrading grounds which had been left to decline for decades. Such projects have a time-frame, and numerous complications; financing, land-availability, planning-permissions and so on. This meant that over the 90s and 00s some clubs lagged behind, stuck in outdated facilities which hampered their ability to generate revenue.

European-level changes to improve the mobility of labour also had a big impact. Clubs had access to a much wider pool of talent with the wealthiest clubs able to purchase not just the top players in England, Wales and Scotland, but the greatest players in the world. Allied with 1995’s Bosman ruling this sparked a huge change.

Annotated CV graph

All this though simply marked the acceleration of a trend begun much earlier.

The ultimate question though, is have we seen the end of this trend, has the Premier League reached an apex of inequality?

It is hard to infer the future from just looking at the past however, part of me thinks that we may have. The reason for this is that we have reached a point where the clubs like Manchester United, who raced to the top in the 90s have slowly been reeled in by the chasing pack as clubs lower down the food-chain have completed infrastructure improvements and have gained experience in running a more commercial operation.

It is also some years since clubs have had access to, and the cash for, the world’s best players – The impact of this has already been felt and now, thanks to the Premier League’s TV deals even modest clubs have a huge amount of spending power.

Eastleigh v Dartford Conference Premier 2nd December 2014

3 Dec


“It’s going to be about, ten minutes, we’ve been drunk dry” exclaimed the man in the Tea hut, surveying his empty tea urn.

A lack of tea on tap is evidently, the price of success at Eastleigh.

Immediately opposite, on the far side of the pitch rises another indicator of changing times. The currently named South Stand, which seats just over 2,000 and reminds me of the stands at St. Mirren in the Scottish Premier League, is open for the first time today having received building control clearance.

It’s sleek silver contrasts with the dark ramshackle tea hut opposite. The wooden structure which also served as the bar and dressing rooms has, outwardly, changed little from when the ground was known as Ten Acres and hosted Wessex League football, but the stand looming opposite suggests that its days may well be numbered.

Eastleigh are a club with ambition, ever since Paul Doswell et al waked them from their slumber in the lower reaches of the pyramid and hoisted them up to the Conference South via three successive promotions, beginning with the winning of the Wessex League – where the club had resided since 1986 – in 2003.

A couple of times the Eastleigh project looked to have faltered, firstly with the departure of Doswell part-way through the 2006-97 season after disappointing results and secondly with the failure of Ian Baird’s side to hold onto a 4-0 lead against Hayes and Yeading in the Conference South play-off semi finals in 2009

Missing out on the play-offs the next two seasons the Hayes & Yeading defeat seemed to have been a high water mark for a club which enjoyed reasonable, but not spectacular attendances. The arrival of new owners Bridle Insurance however, at the end of 2011, has provided the club with an additional boost.

On the pitch the playing squad was given a boost with a number of high-profile signings. Off-field changes were made to the behind-the-scenes staffing and improvements made to the ground. In September 2012 Baird was replaced by current manager Richard Hill, who led his side into the Conference Premier, one step away from the football league, at the end of last season.

Bridle aslo seem quite fond of letting supporters in for free, which is what they have done tonight for the game against Dartford.

There are of course detractors. For some Eastleigh are the new Crawley, the non-league side elevated by nothing other than an owners bulging pockets. Then there are those who point out that often in football what goes up seemingly too quickly comes – often equally, if not more, spectacularly – crashing back down. A litany of clubs and fans have found this to their hardship over recent years Rushden and Diamonds, Weymouth, Truro City, Salisbury and so on

Certainly the list is long enough to inspire cynicism, if not in the motives, then at least in the capacities of club owners, and a tendency to over-reach.

Tonight though the only problem seems to be a lack of tea.


Eastleigh 2 – 0 Dartford

Domestic inequality: a recipe for European Success?

17 Nov

A few years back in an influential book, The Spirit Level, the authors made the argument that  among developed nations high levels of income inequality result in more crime, lower life expectancy and more obesity among other things. Their view was clear – inequality is a bad thing. And it is a view that many subscribe to, but when it comes to football is the reverse true? Is inequality actually a good thing?

One striking example of inequality being correlated with footballing success is Spain. The national team have enjoyed a period of international dominance with a World Cup win 2010, bookended by European Championship titles in 2008 and 2012. Spanish clubs have also collected four European Cup wins since 2006 yet, with the exception of Athletico’s win in 2013/14, you have to go back to 2004 to find a winner outside the big two.

Similarly there are many who rail against the inequality of the premier league era. If the national team has not quite enjoyed the success of the Spanish, then English clubs three European Cup wins since 2005 puts them second only to their Spanish counterparts.

Could there be a relationship between the two? Does an unequal domestic league equal success at a European level?

There is a logic to this. Top clubs in unequal leagues are more likely to be assured of qualification to the Champions League, or the Europa League. This provides them and their players with regular experience of top-level continental competition. It also provides them with assured access to greater revenues through broadcast rights, ticket sales and sponsorship opportunities.

Clubs are then more likely to be able to attract top players whose financial lust and ambition can be equally sated. Importantly too clubs can engage in long-term planning with a much lower level of uncertainty. On the other hand clubs who face much tougher domestic competition to qualify for Europe will have much less experience, will not have assured access to revenues, and will find it difficult to plan long-term as qualification is not necessarily a given.

One way to measure a leagues level of equality is to look at the spread of wins. From this can be calculated coefficient of variation (in technical terms this is the percentage of the standard deviation against the league average). A high number means that the number of wins is far more spread out, therefore we can assume the league is more unequal.

I’ve done this for ten top leagues in the 2011/12 season. Against this I’ve taken the UEFA correlation points that that countries clubs achieved from European competition for the next season, 2012/13.

Correllation Coefficient of Var

As can be seen, there is no real relationship at all, so it would seem that European success is indifferent to the relative equality level of a countries domestic league. There is though a paradox at work. Taking Spain, if we exclude Real and Barca, then the Spanish Primera Division is actually incredibly equal, in 2011/12 just one win separated 7th and 17th place. It is, in effect, a duopoly. The coefficient of variation, takes the whole league into account, but in terms of European success, what matters most is the relationship of the teams at the very top to the rest of the field.

Now, instead of using the coefficient of variation, I’ve taken the difference in league wins between the club finishing in second place and the club finishing third. This measures how far ahead of the field the top two clubs are.

Correlation wins Uefa

This time the result does suggest a pattern – the larger the difference between second and third the better the nations collective performance in Europe the next season. In fact the correlation coefficient comes in at 0.64. Although important to remember this is just a snapshot it does suggest there may possibly be a relationship between how far ahead the top two clubs are in terms of their domestic league and how successful their European campaigns the next season are.

Conference Clubs on Twitter – who has the most followers?

8 Nov

Recently I argued in several places that Twitter was a really good way of gauging clubs support, particularly for the top clubs who may have similar sized stadia – and therefore similar average attendances, but who may have very different levels of national, continental and even global following. At the other end of the scale though, among non-league sides, Twitter is also popular way of engaging with supporters.

As with the Football league clubs I collated the number of Twitter followers and tweets made by all clubs in the Conference Premier, Conference North and Conference South. This was done all in one day, the 26th October. ‘The task was made slightly more complicated by the fact that unlike the league clubs who all have a verified official accounts with Conference clubs this was more the exception. Several clubs were also represented by fan-run, unofficial accounts.

Conference Median

In the Conference Premier the median average number of followers was 8098. The figures for both the Conference North and South were unsurprisingly lower, though interestingly clubs in the Conference North had, on average, a greater number of followers than clubs in the Conference South. Taking the figures gathered for clubs in the Football League over the summer, and combining with the Conference figures for October, it is possible to – if not make a fully robust comparison – at least see where the average for the Conference sits in relation to the other divisions. As can be seen the average declines sharply between the Premier League and Championship, before becoming more gradual.

Twitter FL and Conf

Looking at the numbers on a club by club basis the top ten is dominated by ex-football league clubs. First place, in the Conference Premier, is occupied by Bristol Rovers whose verified @Official_BRFC account boasts 26,600 followers: This is over seven times greater than bottom club Alfreton Town. Joining them in the bottom five are four clubs who have recently achieved promotion from the Conference South.

Twitter Conf Prem 2

Looking next at the Conference North there comes a surprise – Hyde FC’s official accounts @hydefclive 43,800 followers. Repeated checks have ensured that this is not a typo or other error. This actually puts Hyde’s number of followers on par with many Championship clubs, and above most League One clubs. As the graph shows however, this is a total outlier. 2nd place club – and former Football League members – Stockport County only manage 10,300 by comparison.

Conf North twitter

There is no such outlier in the Conference South. Lead club Sutton @suttonunited manage 6,165 followers. This would put them in 8th place in the Conference North. The Conference South also seemed to feature many more fan run accounts with Havant & Waterlooville, Maidenhead United, Whitehawk, bishops Stortford and Wealdstone all being fan operated.

conf South Twitter

the differences between the Conference North and South would seem to be reflected in terms of attendances – the current average attendance, according to thelinnets.co.uk, stands at 631 and 482 respectively.

Looking at tweets made it is a Conference South club which leads the field. the fan-run @Wealdstone_FC account has, since starting in November 2009, made 40, 700 tweets to what currently stands as 3,916 followers. In second place is former league outfit and 2012/13 FA Trophy winners Wrexham AFC who’s official @Wrexham_AFC account has issued 26,100 tweets since its setting up in July 2009.

Prolific tweeters2

Town, United & City – Which Team Names are the Most Popular

29 Oct

I had a bit of time on my hands today and like you do, started wondering about the names of football teams, or to be more precise their suffixes: City, United, Albion and the like. 10 minutes later, by the combined power of Google and MS Excel, I had in my hands a list.

Wordle club suffixes 3

A Wordle of all club suffixes from the Premier League to the Conference Premier


Taking the top five tiers from the Premier League to the Conference Premier the most popular team name was ‘Town’ as in Huddersfield Town, Swindon Town and Braintree Town. In total 17 teams were named ‘Town’. Second most popular was ‘United’ as in Leeds United, Manchester United and Sheffield United, which accounted for 15 teams. Completing the top three was ‘City’ with this suffix being sported by no fewer than 14 clubs. Outside of this pack Rovers in fourth place mustered a mere five clubs, with Athletic on four and Albion, County and Wanderers all on three.

Most pop suffixes to albion


Where this gets interesting though is if we compare the distribution of the teams named ‘Town’ and ‘City’

Graph Town and City


As we can see there is a clear pattern here with clubs named ‘City’ more represented in the higher divisions and those named ‘Town’ better represented in the lower divisions. The explanation, of course, would seem to be that clubs from large settlements (i.e Cities) are more likely to possess the support and resources necessary to be successful at the top level compared to clubs from smaller settlements (i.e Towns). Stating the obvious perhaps, but still interesting nonetheless.

English League Attendances: The not so good news

24 Oct

If the headline figures are to be believed, English football attendances are in fine health. These graphs, based on data from the European Football Statistics website, though should worry English football clubs (and fans) a lot.


attendances 2008 14

Despite the Premier League reaching average attendance levels on a par with the late 1940s peak, growth has effectively tailed off. This is also the case for the Championship and League One and League Two which have seen attendances continue to stagnate for much of the past decade.

There are two key issues. For Premier League clubs the issue is one of capacity. This has been around 95% for some time and for some clubs and some games demand is much, much higher than capacity. This has effectively slowed the attendance growth which coincided with the ambitious post-Taylor report stadia building programmes of the 90s and 00s. For clubs this is, in the short term, no problem. The supply-demand mismatch means they simply charge more for tickets for the most popular games.

It is however, bad for the fans who are priced out and in the long-term it is also more of an issue. Eventually a maximum point will be reached at which prices can no longer be raised and clubs will need to invest in stadia expansion to boost matchday income (that is if demand continues to rise). There is some relief around the corner though; QPR, Tottenham, Liverpool and West Ham are all clubs with plans to carry out large scale stadia programmes in the forthcoming years.

For the bottom two divisions League One and League Two, the issue is not so much one of limited capacity, but one of limited demand. It is therefore a surprise to see that in the BBC price of football survey the average cost of the cheapest matchday tickets have risen by 31.7% in League One and 19% in League Two. This begs the question: Are these clubs banking on the resilience of their core supporters to put up with these increases? If so then it suggests that clubs are here are equally focused on the short term target of squeezing revenue out of existing supporters than the more long term aim of expanding their supporter base.


What became of the football blogging class of 2011?

14 Oct
blog titles

What happens when you put the title of every blog on the Guardian 100 list into Wordle

Concluding my three part series into football blogging this was meant to be a section.  On December the 31st 2011 James Dart of the Guardian published a list ‘100 football blogs to follow in 2011.’ It was a huge moment for blogging, more than just a moment of recognition it was an acknowledgement that football blogging had really transformed football writing..

The class of 2011 is in many ways blogging’s equivalent of Man U’s much lauded class of 1992; the pride of the blogging world, the freshest, the most promising. The question I wanted an answer to though is where are they now?

So I clicked through every blog in the 100. Just under four years on how many of the 100 are still active?

Guardian blogs 2

Just under half of the blogs featured on the list are still active. A similar number though appear inactive whilst a small number seem to  be dormant with their last post dating from August 2014. Interestingly some of the inactive blogs contained final posts which shed some light on the bloggers reasoning for calling it quits (and it will come as no surprise to those who have read the results from my blogging survey that time features particularly prominently).

In a post titled ‘The last post’ and dated Monday the 6th February 2012 Danny Last of European Football Weekends looks forward to a life beyond blogging when he says:

This will be the last post on European Football Weekends. But hey, don’t be shedding any tears – it’s been a thunderously good ride. At the start of 2012 I decided to take a little break from EFW, and see how things panned out. I’ve enjoyed that freedom so much that it now feels right to hang up the old keyboard. You don’t realise how much time it eats up until you stop. 

Other bloggers point to a change in their circumstances. For Tim Hill of the blog Talking About Football  2011 was definitely not the ‘year of the blog’ – on March 22nd of that year he explained his decision to quit blogging:

This is not a article  on how Tesla’s work on electromagnetism is subsumed within the football of Eastern Europe in the late 1970s. I wish it was, but it isn’t. No, it’s a post explaining the scarcity in posts recently.

Truth is, I’m engaged in work that has had me away from football since the turn of the year. To my knowledge, Roy Hodgson is still in charge at Liverpool, Gareth Bale is the best player in the world and Andy Gray & Richard Keys are respectable members of the Sky Sports team. I know no different.

I’ll be gracing the internet with my #newseriousness tag at the start of the summer.

Dominic Pollard was another blogger on the 100 list to quit in 2011. In a post titled ‘A Fond Farewell’ he says

Between having to finish my Masters dissertation and getting a new job, the time and focus is no longer there for me to continue running the blog with anything like the regularity and consistency that I would like. Thankfully there are many far better blogs than this which are thriving and growing all the time, all of which I intend to continue to read and recommend.

Rob Marr of dormant blog Left Back in the Changing Room, similarly points to a change of circumstances leaving him with less time to blog – though he signals his hope for a comeback. In a post on the 11th August this year he says:

I’ll be taking a bit of a break from the blog. Two weeks ago I became a father and, as you will either know or can imagine, this has left me previous little blogging time.

I shall return.
In all fairness it has only been two months, but will he like Danny Last  find the freedom from blogging liberating and move on, or find that he just doesn’t have the time to return? Time will tell.
Of course the story isn’t all doom, gloom and disillusioned, time-strapped bloggers. Some of the class of 2011 have gone on to greater things. Adam Bate, of the blog Ghostgoal – which is still (but only just) active writes in a post earlier this year about how blogging helped to open the door to a dream career:
I work for Sky Sports as a football feature writer. It’s my first full-time writing job. And yet, my dad is a retired mechanic from Wolverhampton. He’s not the editor of Sky Sports. In fact, I had no contacts in the industry. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did have some contacts. I wrote a blog. I was a blogger.
For  at least 46 bloggers though they continue pretty much as they had done when they had been on the cusp of 2011 – still blogging.

Were you blogging in 2011, or were you one of the bloggers in the 100 list? If so please leave a note about your blog and how things have changed since 2011 – whether you’re still blogging, or enjoying life after blogging!  


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