This town ain’t big enough for the both of us: The decline of Nottingham, Sheffield and Bristol’s football league clubs.

It was a debate on twitter which got me thinking, beginning with a tweet in which someone was asking why both of the professional clubs in Sheffield were continually failing to perform . My response was to suggest that the problem is that Sheffield has two clubs.

Understandably this is controversial. My viewpoint was based on the fact that the economics of football today are very different to the past – and by the past I mean ten-to-twenty years ago. Increasingly top clubs come from big cities and the very elite from massive urban conurbations.

The reason for this as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski explain in Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained is due to the increased amount of money in the game:

The swelling of the football economy – the bigger TV contracts, the new stadiums, the freer movement of players and so on – favoured the most popular clubs. For historical reasons, these tended to be the ones in big provincial cities.

And by big provincial cities they mean those with two to four million inhabitants such as Milan, Manchester, Munich and Madrid.

Where does this leave Sheffield with a population, at the 2011 census, of 552 698? Not enough for a top elite side in this new era, but certainly enough population for a decent Premier league side…… Enough to sustain two Premier League sides?…..  Well, that’s what’s in doubt. What may have been sufficient in the past could well be inadequate now.

That’s the theory at least. What about the evidence? My starting point was to look at all cities where there are two football league teams. If the theory is correct we should be able to see a general trend in which clubs from two-club cities experience a protracted decline.

With this in mind what I did was take five cities with two clubs each; Nottingham, Bristol, Stoke-on-Trent, Liverpool and Sheffield. At five-yearly intervals I calculated an average league position for the city based on the league positions of each of its two clubs:


Bristol, Sheffield and Nottingham all experienced declines from  the early to mid 1990s – the period in which footballs resurgence from years of decline began to gather pace and saw the emergence of the Premier League.

I decided to take a closer look at this period, throwing in Manchester for an added comparison.

Average league positions

This shows more clearly the declining fortunes of Bristol, Sheffield and Nottingham.  The most populous of the group – in terms of their metropolitan areas; Liverpool and Manchester have not experienced a decline over the whole time-period, each maintaining two top teams (though it’s worth pointing out that Manchester did experience a blip when City dropped down the leagues in the late 90s).

Stoke-on-Trent is an interesting case in that its average has remained relatively stable. With the least population – 249 008 at the last census – this could be because the city never really did support two top clubs.

Of course fluctuations always occur in football, but what if the graph was smoothed out to show the trendlines:


This is perhaps the most telling of all and supports the theory that what we’re seeing in the case of Sheffield, Nottingham and to a lesser extent Bristol is a move to a ‘new normal’ equilibrium. With a population of 305 680 Nottingham has had the biggest correction in terms of its ability to sustain two big sides, which it managed between the 70s and 80s.

In the current football market lacking the resources of Liverpool or Manchester Sheffield will, like Bristol and Nottingham,  find it highly difficult to maintain two top clubs. The most likely alternatives will either be the maintenance of two mediocre clubs, or like Stoke-on-Trent one highly ranked club and one club towards the bottom of the rankings


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