Sunday, 13 February 2011

Want to play for England? Make sure you were born in the right place.

The other day I was daydreaming, as you do, and thinking about what seems to me to be a disproportionately high number of England footballers over the last ten years or so that come from my local area- the Essex/East London borders.

David Beckham (Leytonstone), John Terry (Barking), Joe Cole (Romford), Tony Adams (Dagenham- though admittedly pushing it for 'last ten years') and Frank Lampard (Romford) are all from round here. You don't have to cast your net too much farther to find Rio Ferdinand (Peckham), Sol Campbell (Stratford), Ashley Cole (Whitechapel), Glen Johnson (Greenwich) and Jermain Defoe (Forest Gate) either.

Then, I thought, there's the Scousers (Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher) and the Mancs (Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes) and before you know it, from just three locations you have almost all of the most capped players of recent times. Now this is off the top of my head rather than an exhaustive list, and moreover goalkeepers seem to be an odd exception, but that's still a huge number of England players from just three areas- East London, Greater Manchester and Greater Merseyside.

You might say that is no great surprise. Those are three of the most densely populated urban areas of the country that contain some of England's biggest clubs. But there are other highly populated urban areas of the country that are either bigger or the same size as Merseyside that just don't produce the same numbers. What about cities like Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham and Newcastle? They may not have as many of the very top performing teams but dozens of professional clubs are in and around those areas. Of course there are famous footballers from these second string locations, especially, so it seems, Newcastle, but not in anywhere near the same numbers. I think.

With this in mind I took to Google and found a 2008 unpublished research paper from the London School of Economics entitled 'Why is the England team doing so poorly? A geographical analysis' by Stuart and Joanne Colridge, and things started to get interesting. It seems that when it comes to geographical diversity, there is a lot to be said for what the England football team lacks in that area, and it may be to the detriment of the team's much maligned performace.

It's always been a bugbear of England fans that we have been playing the game longer than any other nation, have more professional clubs then any country in the world, some of the biggest and most successful clubs in Europe and yet the performance of the national team falls behind great footballing countries of a similar size population like Germany, Argentina, France, Spain and Italy. Not to mention the Netherlands and Brazil (which have much smaller and larger populations respectively but far fewer clubs). Of course there have been many reasons put forward for this over the years, from national character to coaching flaws to the influx or foreign players, but could English geography have anything to do with it?

Colridge and Colridge looked at places of birth of the 140 players that have played for England in all 27 World Cup finals games between 1950 and 2006 using sources including the FA, Wikipedia and They found that increasingly, England players have been drawn from less and less diverse geographical locations as years have gone by. Every outfield player (what is it with goalkeepers?) who started the first game of the 2006 World Cup finals was born in Greater London, Greater Manchester or Greater Merseyside. In contrast, in the first game of the 1958 World Cup finals, all the players were drawn from Blackpool, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Fulham, Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion (3) and Wolverhampton Wanderers (3) and all but two (Bobby Robson who played for West Brom but came from County Durham and Derek Kevan who played for West Brom but came from Ripon in Yorkshire) came from their club's local area. Only one of those aforementioned clubs, Fulham, is in Greater London. None are in Greater Manchester or Greater Merseyside (it may be worth mentioning that the 1958 Munich Air Disaster was earlier that year, without which England may have fielded several Manchester United players from the Greater Manchester area in that game, though one of them, Bobby Charlton, would have been and is a Geordie by upbringing and another, Duncan Edwards, was fom Dudley in the West Midlands).

Indeed, of the 12 founder members of the Football League in 1888 (England and the world's first fully professional football competition), only one (Everton) was from Greater Merseyside. None were from Greater Manchester or Greater London- the remainder were all from Lancashire, the West Midlands or the East Midlands. No London team joined the Football League at all until Arsenal in 1892.

Moreover, when you take into consideration that, according to Coleridge and Coleridge, Greater Manchester, Greater London and Greater Merseyside made up 30.57% of the English population in 1951 but just 22.72% in 2001 (they cite government censuses as the source for these stats), then it's certain that these three areas are making up an increasingly disproportionate number of England footballers in modern times.

Coleridge and Coleridge argue that the inability of especially the West Midlands, Lancashire and Tyne & Wear to continue to prodice top class footballers has contributed to this, something that is certainly illustrated by the contrast in those 1958 and 2006 teams. Indeed, despite its reputation as a hotbed of football, Alan Shearer was the last player from Tyne & Wear to actually play a game for England in a World Cup finals in 1998 despite 18 of the 140 players to have ever played for England in football's premier tournament coming from that area- including such names as Jackie Milburn, Stan Mortensen, Bobby & Jack Charlton, Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne. They also cite the increasing importance of a number of East London boroughs as the places of birth for England players. So maybe I wasn't going mad with my local obsession!

Now of course, not the least significant reason for this is that the richest Premier League clubs in 2011 (Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs) which attract the country's best players have been getting disproportionately much richer in the last 15 years- and indeed all those clubs are from the Greater London, Greater Manchester or Greater Merseyside areas. But obviously those clubs buy players who are already first team regulars at other clubs and capture youth players from far outside their local areas (Leytonstone's David Beckham starting his first team career at Manchester United being arguably the most high profile example). Therefore, whilst the increasing wealth of those clubs may explain why players in World Cups are drawn from fewer teams, it doesn't necessarily explain why those players were born in less and less diverse parts of the country since 1950, despite a decreasing percentage of the general population being born in those areas in the last 60 years.

In other words it's not just that the top clubs are getting better and better than the next tier, players born in certain areas are having disproportionately more and more successful careers no matter which club they play for.

The paper suggests that if England want to get better they should focus development of players on areas outside of Greater London, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. Particularly in areas which have a high number of clubs and formerly made a high contribution to the national team but whose contribution has faded since the Second World War. Principally the North East, the West Midlands and Lancashire but also South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and the East Midlands.

Maybe, just maybe, if the balance is redressed, the extra diversity enjoyed by the likes of certainly Italy, France and Germany may give us the kind of national team that we deserve.

Check out the LSE paper here:

It's not the most erudite academic paper in the world and its conclusions are somewhat muddy (probably why it wasn't published- there are a few typos too) but I thought it made for a really interesting read.

But then, as you may have gathered, I am an enormous and terrible geek. Thanks for reading.



  1. Some interesting thoughts, I'll have to have a read of the full paper (College work permitting)

  2. Maybe these clubs have better youth academies than others, nurture their young better, and because they buy some of the best foreign players around, they get to learn from them first-hand. Imagine turning up to training and seeing a Cantona, or an Henry, or a Bergkamp. The West Midlands always intrigues me.