Saturday, 29 January 2011

What makes a big club big?

One of easiest ways to wind up a Newcastle fan is to tell them their club isn’t big.  Sure they have a huge fan base – that’s undeniable, but their trophy cabinet hasn’t seen much action in a while, so they can’t really call themselves a big club, right?
They’re part of a group of clubs which sit just outside the ‘Big Four’ and for various reasons, haven’t seen much meaningful success in a few years and so, like bald men fighting over a comb, their fans have to content themselves by taking cheap digs at each other on radio phone-ins.

Yet even what constitutes a ‘Big Four’ team is open to debate these days.  Liverpool handed in their membership card last season and don’t look like renewing it anytime soon and even Champions Chelsea might find themselves on the outside come May. And, let's not forget, before Richard Keys and Andy Gray and their chums at Sky invented football, there was a Big Five that didn't include Chelsea.  Essentially the Big Club argument centres on whether history and silverware trumps attendance and revenue.

Here’s an easy one: Big Clubs win lots of stuff. Well, not quite. What's clear is it's actually very hard to win trophies, it always has been and success tends to coagulate around the same teams.

Take the League for example; only three teams (you guessed it - Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal) have won the title more than ten times.  The next most successful clubs are Everton (nine) and Aston Villa (seven).  Chelsea - a Big Club, no? - have won the title four times.  That's two less than Sunderland and the same as Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday.

The list of FA and League Cup winners tells pretty much the same tale, but if you crunch the numbers you find some interesting facts - Aston Villa are clearly the fourth 'biggest' English team in terms of domestic success (19 trophies) behind Manchester United (33), Liverpool (32) and Arsenal (25). In fact, throw in their European Cup from 1982 (a trophy two of the 'Big Four' - Chelsea and Arsenal - have so far failed to win) and in this category they're in an elite group.

Not as big as you think, JT

Chelsea can add six FA Cup wins to their four League titles - exactly the same as Newcastle on both counts and they both have a European trophy to their name. No doubt the phone-in know-it-alls will point out that Newcastle haven’t won anything since 1969 (when they picked up the Fairs Cup, the precursor to the Uefa Cup) and you have to go even further to 1955 for a domestic success.

Yet since then, to name a few, Leicester, Middlesbrough and Swindon have all won trophies.  So have Oxford, who now play in League Two, and Luton who don't even ply their trade in the League any more. Are they really bigger than Newcastle?

Fan base and infrastructure
Now we're talking: bums on seats; Big Clubs attract big crowds, right? The answer to this question seems to be an emphatic yes. Match day earnings are a vital revenue stream for the modern-day club, which is why Spurs and West Ham are fighting like drunks at closing time for the Olympic Stadium.

If there's one thing that Newcastle have got right it's extending St James' Park.  This means the club is regularly near the top of the attendance league - they were second behind Manchester United until Arsenal opened the Emirates Stadium in 2008.  Even when they got relegated in 2009 they had the third highest average attendance (48,750 - which was still short of capacity) and made it into the top 20 of the 2010 Deloitte Money League with the tenth highest match-day revenue (£29m) - despite also being the only club on the list not to feature in European competition that season.

By contrast in the same season Everton finished fifth and lost in the FA Cup final, but could only attract an average of 35,710 punters and didn't make the money list.  The club lacks a modern stadium, having had several planning applications turned down.  This in turn makes them an unattractive proposition to potential buyers, which in turn seriously curtails David Moyes' ability to move the club onto the next level - the top four and Champions League riches.

The same problem also impedes their city rivals Liverpool. A huge club with a proud history and a strong bond between the club and its supporters. Yet their progress has also been thwarted by the fact they have not been able to bring their stadium plans to fruition.

Again, to put this into perspective in the 2008/09 season Liverpool came second and reached the Champions League quarter finals but, their match day revenue (£42.5m) was less than half of Manchester United's (£108.8m) and was just £13.5m more than Newcastle's

Clearly, and perhaps a little depressingly, this all seems to lead to money. There is some debate as to whether the amount a club spends on wages or transfers is a better predictor of success but either way it's clear that while past glory is undeniably important, the true barometer of a big club is current success and that is to a large extent determined by the ability to spend.

Leeds were able to win the title in 1992 just two seasons after gaining promotion, while the Premier League's first season saw Aston Villa, Norwich, Blackburn and QPR in the top five. It would be a dream come true for fans of those clubs to see a repeat, yet even Villa with considerable recent investment haven't managed to break into the top five since 1993.

I'm surprised this is in colour

It is also significant that the two most consistently successful Premier League teams - Manchester United and Arsenal - have been the most stable and well-managed on and off the pitch. Liverpool are where they are because of a tortuous ownership struggle over recent years and Chelsea's success has come despite - not because of - the way they are run off the pitch. (Even Manchester United may find themselves unable to compete at the same with their spending power curtailed by massive interest repayments.)

There are several teams that could reasonably lay claim to being a big club, or at least have the potential to be; the traditional Big Four - Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea - plus Tottenham, Aston Villa, Everton, Newcastle, Manchester City, Sunderland and Leeds all fit bill.

They have history and, crucially, a large fan base yet it’s a damning indictment that despite the advantages they have over 'smaller' clubs, four of them (Newcastle, Sunderland, Leeds and Manchester City) have been relegated since the start of the Premiership and another two (Everton and Aston Villa) have beaten the drop by just one place.

With their stadium in place and their ability to generate revenue, perhaps Newcastle fans are right to be annoyed when people tell them they aren't a Big Club.  Now, if they could just start acting like one...

1 comment:

Fergie said...

The very definition and literal meaning of the word 'Big', is something that is large in size. As an indicator of size applied to football, Newcastle is surely a 'Big' club in terms of attendances, fan base, revenue etc. However, if you compare their trophy cabinet to the likes of Man Utd and Liverpool then they are clearly not as successful. 'Successful' being the operative word. I agree that the 'big club' argument includes a mixture of both size and success BUT, if you just look at the literal meaning of the word 'big' and analyse the 'size' of clubs accordingly, then Newcastle United is a 'big' club. Clutching at straws and pedantic perhaps, but true nonetheless.