What we can learn from football’s collapsed social mobility

7:27 am - May 16th 2009

by Sunder Katwala    

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You can learn a lot, growing up, from football. Local identities across Britain, European geography from club competition. The location of the cruciate ligament and other crucial medical science issues. Basic arithmetic, for league tables and goal difference, though also now an early introduction to highly leveraged debt finance. A weekly masterclass in cliche and mixed metaphors. Even, it was once rumoured, fraternity, solidarity and the character education to deal with victory and defeat: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football”, wrote Albert Camus, the famous goalkeeper whose works appear to be mysteriously understudied in the Chelsea dressing room.

If we seem to be losing that battle, perhaps football could yet prove an important lens through which to study the big arguments about political ideas, outcomes and distributional fairness in society as well as sport. Our study of “football mobility”, by myself and Tom Stratton, published today on the Fabian website offers what we think may even be the first comprehensive study of social mobility in club football. We have called it ‘Sing When You’re Winning: What we can learn from football’s collapsed social mobility’

We analysed three pretty standard questions about opportunity, meritocracy, mobility and competitiveness, assessing these across English football history.

Firstly, who can have prizes? More teams competing to win would be good evidence of meritocracy. We found three distinct eras in the post-war period as the top honours became more narrowly contested and the magic of the FA Cup was lost.

Second, is there room at the top? We wanted to know whether promoted teams could compete on equal terms, or whether the dream was to avoid relegation.

Thirdly, is downward mobility possible too? Did past success guarantee future success, or could even the mightiest fear relegation, as happened to Manchester United in 1974 just six years after Matt Busby and George Best had won the European Cup

If football outcomes were mostly down to the influence of great teams, players and managers, we would expect to see the level of competitiveness fluctuate over time with the ebb and flow of the game. If we found a consistent sustained change in one direction, that would suggest that structural factors of the governance and finance of the game had most influence.

And the evidence very clearly points to a major structural change in English football. Although a great deal changed in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – from the maximum wage to the first £1 million transfer – this was the “level playing field” era of footballing hypermobility and competitiveness. England had the most open and competitive league in Europe. But the last gasp of this era came with Brian Clough’s 1979 European Cup victory. In the previous two seasons, Nottingham Forest finished third in the second division, then won the league championship as a newly promoted club. Nobody believes that could be emulated today.

The transition years of the 1980s and 1990s saw money matter rather more, but in hindsight there were stark differences with the last decade. On every indicator, this decade has been the most predictable and least competitive decade in English football history.

There were always bigger and smaller clubs. But the football class system was open, fluid and meritocratic, often to a now astonishing degree. It has been replaced not so much by a class system as a rigidly hierarchical caste system, in which the top four clubs have segregated themselves into a league of their own, using their exclusive access to the additional resources of the Champions League to lock in their advantages.

This being Liberal Conspiracy, I shall not go into the anorak details of recent footballing history, nor the sports governance and reform implications, where the evidence strongly supports the arguments of UEFA President Michel Platini and UK Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, but instead highlight two central implications of this study as political allegory.

Firstly, political philosophy. The Football Association have, in the Premiership era, offered us equality of opportunity from the FA Hayek textbook. After all, every team starts the season level-pegging on no points. Every team plays 38 matches, playing everybody else home and away. The rule of law is in place: nobody can bribe the referee. Each team can only play eleven players at a time. This is the equality of opportunity that asserts that the Premiership title could just as much end up in the hands of Hull City or Sunderland as at Old Trafford again.

So why doesn’t it ever happen? I would suggest it is a question of resources and the capabilities to compete. Perhaps libertarians could let us have their explanation too.

Secondly, political sociology. Fellow pointy-heads might be struck by just how closely the pattern of collapsing football mobility seemed to track that in wider British society, as in the much discussed LSE studies by Jo Blanden, Alissa Goodman, Paul Gregg and Steve Machin which found declining social mobility for those born in 1970 compared to those born in 1958.

The cohort born in 1958 could reasonably expect better jobs than their parents as they entered the labour market in the mid-1970s. Exciting and competitve football seemed to be their birthright too as the grew up during the age of football super-meritocracy with eleven different league champion clubs in jusy fourteen seasons from 1959, and even seven different champions in consecutive seasons from both 1959-65 and again from 1967-73. They turned 18 in the year that second division Southampton won the FA Cup and QPR fell just short of the league title.

But their experiences in neither the labour market nor in the final years of the football terraces were not repeated by the 1970 cohort: Thatcher’s children who left education from 1986 to 1988. They may just have caught the end of the golden age of the FA Cup – nine different winners in the 1970s – and turned eighteen as Wimbledon won their unlikely victory, yet could see Liverpool’s 1980s dominance being taken over by Arsenal and then Manchester United, who will today seek to clinch their eleventh league title in the seventeen seasons of the Premiership.

There is a difference in the last decade between football and society. New Labour has struggled to run up the down escalator, at least seeking to hold back the tide of rising inequality though failing to reverse it. By contrast, the policy in football has been to simply let inequality rip to unpredecented levels. And how. So more recent LSE evidence suggests the fall in social mobility in society has been halted, but not reversed. Football mobility continues to collapse apace, and if nothing is changed off the field, nothing will change on it for the foreseeable future. It could well get worse still: look at how Arsenal struggle to keep up even within the big four.

How to respond? Many will be fatalistic or resist the idea of any change. Nothing can or should be done. This is the way of the world. Talents differ. Get over it. Melissa Kite argued in last Sunday’s Telegraph that levelling the playing field is a recipe for mediocrity; a failure to understand how competition works. But there was nothing mediocre about Clough’s achievement. The stratification of football into a caste society is a denial of competitive principles, not a celebration of them.

And we have evidence that it does not have to be like this. It is a question of governance and choice. We can show how football was recently so much more meritocratic and competitive in the recent past, just as Scandinavian countries prosper while choosing to be more equal.

Football’s collapsed social mobility offers clear evidence that equal opportunity is not delivered magically by an invisible hand. If we hear much breast beating from all parties about social mobility in the run up to the General Election, the test of all of them is whether and how they talk about inequality too.

It is not only in football that today’s unequal outcomes become tomorrow’s unequal opportunities unless there is an effort to level the playing field.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments

This is an absolutely outstanding piece.

I’d never thought of the analogy with the Premiership structure – i.e. a libertarian “starting gate” equality with no regard for starting resources and possessed talents – with society. But it really does work.

Do you mind if I cross-post this at my blog? I’ll credit you (obviously).

Of course. Thank you

An interesting metaphor, there. You make a good point that there is little scope for a team to move from the bottom to the top at any great speed, but I think you miss out an important piece of the puzzle: the players.

Any given football club might not be able to progress quickly from bottom to top, but that’s at least in part because their players are not expected to be as loyal to individual clubs any more. A player who shows serious promise will be sought out by and almost definitely transfer to a larger, more successful club.

Maybe I’m just over-thinking it, but it seems your argument about social mobility breaks down at that point, because although the teams might not move up or down, the fortunes of the individual players are defined by their skills as a player. You can start out playing for the humblest of second division clubs, but if you are talented and are spotted by one of the big four, you have just as much chance of success as anyone else.

This could be prevented by banning or restricting transfers, but that would lead to a situation where teams’ position may go up or down, but the likelihood of success for any individual player would end up being defined entirely by the team they started in, which seems like less of a meritocracy than the current situation.

4. the a&e charge nurse

What an absolutely superb piece, Sunder, thank you.

If I had to quibble (because the A&E C/N must ALWAYS quibble) I had would factor in at least x2 further elements into the equation:

[1] Today’s game is not an end point – in other words we cannot say this is how football IS (and always will be). It is just a new phase that may or may not be sustained. For example, there have been dark mutterings about the level of Man Utd’s debt and if they implode financially who knows what the wider implications will be for the game.

[2] Closer integration with Europe has affected team relationships as well – so if we take the big 4, where once upon a time Liverpool’s main rivals (say) would have been Forrest or Leeds it is now shifting to clubs like Barca or Inter – the globalisation at club level may extend even further in the future although no amount of money seems to be able to produce a decent American team for some reason (and even Becks waved bye bye to the dollar in order to cosy up to Ancelotti and the sophisticated Milanese).

Perhaps we should also point out that by 2005 the English game had generated a staggering outlay of £1 billion plus – most of this cash was spent by the big4 of course, but look at Man City, Villa and Tottenham, none of them exactly slow when it comes to throwing around money, and in Harry’s case bungs (allegedly).

This article will have me thinking all day when really I should be focussing on Liverpool’s remote mathematical possibility of pipping the Mancs.

The only thing I can say with absolute certainty is that Andy Burnham (or Platini for that matter) is most definitely NOT the solution to football’s troubled future – remember Burnham was booed during an otherwise impeccably observed Hillsborough memorial service (we will gloss over the behaviour of Liverpool’s reserve goal keeper for now).
Most of the crowd soon sussed out that Burham was simply a bagman for a Government that views most fans as either prawn sandwich eaters, or potential hooligans who need to be watched like hawks.

5. Shatterface

What Stu said (3)

And I’d be careful where the analogy leads. You could use football teams as a metaphor for countries.We don’t start on a level playing field and free movement of labour means that those with talent will congregate where they will be paid the most. Indeed, that’s the argument those in favour of immigration make: that an influx of talent will raise Britan to the Premier League. This doesn’t leave the ‘teams’ they left behind capable of competing with the big boys.

6. twoseventwo

I always find it interesting the way that North American sports, which might be imagined to be the pinnacle of capitalist excess, actually make serious efforts to balance things out with salary caps, entry drafts and the like, with the result that the top teams change a lot. Not because the management is particularly egalitatarian, no doubt, but probably because it simply makes the experience more interesting and therefore profitable.

The flip side is that there’s no even theoretical way of taking a club from bottom to top through sheer hard work and talent, but given quite how theoretical that route now is, I’m not sure it matters that much.

As #3 pointed out, your analogy is a deeply flawed one. I was confused when I started reading the post, because my initial reaction is to think that social mobility in the context of football is a function of how easy it is for a talented *footballer* to move up the ranks. But no, apparently you take it to mean a function of how easy it is for a *club* to move up the ranks. There are good reasons to think that the two pull in opposite directions – in order to maintain mobility for clubs, you need a way to stop more successful clubs luring away the best players from other clubs, and in a system where club membership is more rigid, there is going to be less mobility for players. Is there any mention in the article that this is potentially a trade off? No. In fact, you don’t even seem to mention the actual players once.

You say on the website: “If more teams win and compete seriously for the league championship and FA Cup, that is good evidence of a level playing field and a football meritocracy.”

Well, no, actually. If the best teams consistently win, now that is good evidence of a football meritocracy. But as far as I can tell (and I’m admittedly not a follower of football) this is exactly what’s happening year after year – the best teams are winning. You even verge on admitting this yourself: “I would suggest it is a question of resources and the capabilities to compete” – what is capability to compete (at football), if not football merit?

As #7 says, I was a little confused at first as to what you were getting at as I thought you might have been talking about footballers’ social mobility rather than clubs.

However, confusion sorted, I found this piece absolutely fascinating. Even as a Liverpool fan, I completely agree that the monopoly of the big 4 – soon to be big 3 – is not good for English football. We don’t want a situation like Scotland do we?


– Why do we care about the mobility of clubs, and more than players. Because football clubs represent identity, allegiance and community and are central to the historic transmission of identity and the game’s history among the community of supproters. I don’t see that using clubs as the actors delegitimises the analogy. Fans are not simply consumers: there is loyalty and voice and only painful exit. (But the point about uncompetitiveness also affects, less deeply, a simply consumerist audience).

Yes, the mobiliity of players is a simply different issue. I am not dealing with that in this piece. I am not much concerned about that at this point in time either. I expect football is one of the most open and meritocratic high-earning professions for individuals who happen to be good at football. Probably more so than journalism, law, academia, medicine, etc as there are especially strong incentives to meritocracy in sport generally, and perhaps football particularly (access to equipment/early coaching less important than eg Formula One, Skiing; Tennis; Ice Hockey; and so widely played). There is one caveat, in the Malcolm Gladwell Blink book about the structure of school competitive sport and month of birth, so that the luck of being born Sept-Dec matters. Steven Gerrard

Players may have to give up particular allegiances and identities. They might be fans, even committed fans. Most of them deal with this quite easily, as when Wayne Rooney left Everton for Man Utd. It would have been heroic, and quixotic, to stay at Goodison Park (my team) in the style of Roy of the Rovers. Alan Shearer choosing to join Newcastle, not Manchester United, was a choice of that kind. But in the level playing field era the choice was not so stark. Managers too: a Ferguson or Clough could win things with Aberdeen or Forest, not only with Man Utd (and in Clough’s case not successful when getting a champion club at Leeds, which supports my thesis rather well I think)

The governance of football has to work in the interests of all of the stakeholders of the game: they include the players interests, but that is not the sole objective. Now, there might be circumstances in which one should have a strong concern with the players’ interests, as with Jimmy Hill’s campaign to abolish the old maximum wage (but that was partly about the level as much as the principle) and the old transfer rules. I see no particular concerns about any of this now.

(International football is different. Eg Ryan Giggs being Welsh. But this also protects the international game from some of the money effects – eg Ivory Coast being competitive with Argentina or Holland a decent game at the World Cup).

10. the a&e charge nurse

Sunder, you say, “today’s unequal outcomes become tomorrow’s unequal opportunities unless there is an effort to level the playing field”.

And ………. “the governance of football has to work in the interests of all of the stakeholders of the game”.

I assume this translates into imposing mechanisms to limit the influence of cash in the game?

For example some have suggested that a % of income from the Champions league (contested by the big4) should be divvied up amongst teams in the lower divisions – is this the sort of thing you are suggesting?

11. Planeshift

“You can start out playing for the humblest of second division clubs, but if you are talented and are spotted by one of the big four, you have just as much chance of success as anyone else.”

But this really doesn’t happen anymore. I can’t think of any player bought by the big 4 from the bottom 2 divisions (or non-league) in recent years, and even from the championship (or division 2 as it always will be to me) I can only think of Aaron Ramsey. It used to be the case that a talented youngster could be spotted by his local club and play a few seasons before moving up the leagues, ensuring the local club got a transfer fee. these days any kid who shows promise, even if they live in the most remote village, will be on the databases of the big clubs by the time they are a teenager. If the kid lives outside the permitted radius of the club’s academy, fine the club just pays the parents to move near. And by the time they are 16/17 most of them will be thrown on the scrapheap.

“You can learn a lot, growing up, from football.”

If you support a lower division team, then you learn that the line between succesfull businessman and conman is a very thin one indeed. There probably hasn’t been a lower division club in the last 20 years who haven’t been bought out by a local businessman who then asset strips the club and enriches himself with dodgy property deals using the club. See David Conn’s reporting over the years.

Excellent post,

Excellent post. Great weekend reading. Thank you.

Excellent piece – and, more importantly – Manchester United are CHAMPIONS! Boo-YAH!

This article raises some interesting questions. I think Shatterface raises a pretty interesting challenge, too – the metaphor of clubs as countries or companies, and players as citizens or employees does appear to make more sense.

Basically, Sunder regards greater (though not total) equality between football clubs as a good thing, but hasn’t considered the consequences on the individuals within the system. Platini and Burnham are referenced, but no mention is made of their hope of creating a policy restricting the employment of foreigners by British clubs, despite the astounding success of foreign players, many of them coming from poor backgrounds (how’s that for social mobility?). I can just about remember snippets of how football culture thought about race in the 1980s, and the abuse that black, even black British, players would get. I don’t want to say that it’s been purged entirely, but the change is amazing. That’s one piece of the pre-1990s football world we don’t want back.

It would be slightly glib and Road to Serfdom-esque to claim that any restrictions on modern football would inevitably lead us back to racial division, but it would also be foolish not to recognise that it has been the competitive impulse that has encouraged clubs to recruit their players from across the globe and from all social backgrounds.

16. redpesto


The flip side is that there’s no even theoretical way of taking a club from bottom to top through sheer hard work and talent, but given quite how theoretical that route now is, I’m not sure it matters that much.

The two best examples of how social mobility can work: Wimbledon (FA Cup Winners, 1988) and Wigan – both former non-league clubs.

You want the worst example of ‘globalisation’ – Franchise FC (aka Milton Keynes Dons aka Wimbledon FC): a club ‘relocated’ to where the money was regardless of the views of the fans.

Hope for the future: AFC Wimbledon (coming to the Blue Square Premier next season)

Sunder, that’s all very well, but doesn’t explain your point about social mobility – the fact is, the current system has delivered a huge amount of social mobility, as you say yourself, spanning all class boundaries and even across continents.

Just because I choose to support a given team doesn’t mean that team has to win prizes. I might support them because they are in my town. I might support them because my father supported them. I might support them because I think they’re likely to win prizes. I might even support them specifically because they’re unlikely to win prizes and I happen to enjoy rooting for the underdog. Whether my team wins or not is not an issue for the FA, it’s an issue for the team, the manager, and for me as a fan. If supporting a winning team is more important to me than supporting a local team, I am free to switch my allegiance to a team in another town.

I can see how the ‘clubs’ analogy could be applied to, for instance, cities across the UK – explaining quite adequately why London and the other big cities always seems to have the greatest and most consistent success while the typically-Northern cities seem to miss out. That’s not what’s typically meant by social mobility, though, which as far as I’ve ever seen tends to be measured on an individual level.

The point about the top four being in a class of their own is often over-egged. (It is more difficult to break into the top four than it was perhaps 20 years ago, but the Premiership wasn’t the best league in the world 20 years ago and the quality is generally higher now.)

Newcastle finished in the top 4 twice in three season around five years ago, and Leeds finished in the top four and progressed to the semi-finals of the Champions League not long before that. Everton finished fourth a few years ago and no-one would’ve been that surprised had Arsenal finished fifth or even sixth behind Everton and/or Aston Villa this season.

So too, when Liverpool were dominant people were saying it would be ever thus, then events happened, a top manager left them and it took them until this year to make a credible title challenge. At some stage after Fergie leaves, Man Utd will underperform, then over-reach, then face disaster. Football isnt as predictable as people like to think – Leeds went down, Newcastle will more than likely go down this season.

I continue to think the issues of player freedoms/restrictions and of the structuring of football finance can, broadly, be separated. There are some points of overlap (squad salary caps) but I think several measures could be taken (distribution of TV income, rules about debt and/or resources invested, salary caps for squad size, etc) which would not at all have any draconian impact.

I am not myself convinced that the number of domestic/foreign players at club level 6+5 rules or whatever make that much difference to this issue of stratification/competitiveness (though that is sometimes claimed). I think that is mostly driven by questions of club/country issues – in particular, concerns about the long-term impact on the national teams in the three biggest European leagues (especially England, but also Spain, Italy, Germany rather less so). I tend to be a little sceptical of that approach, though don’t have a firmly fixed view. (The legal issues I am not an expert on).

the a&e charge nurse@4

Those caveats were spot on.

If there are no deliberate changes in how football is governed, I suggest we have upward mobility by oligarch (following the Chelski model – interesting club, bit of a fashionable cup team, not a big club of course) but perhaps downward mobility by over-leveraging of debt and financial implosion. (This is a specific issue which Platini does seem to want to address).

The European context is v.important, both to how you deal with it as a football issue. It is important to the allegory too, as it is a case study in ‘is domestic distributional justice possible in a context of global competition’. (I have some more to say about that, from a somewhat sketchier study of what the pan-European impact has been on the domestic leagues of the Champions League restructuring: it is a more complex story than the somewhat straightforward ‘loss of competitiveness in England’.

I would defend both Platini and Burnham. Neither can do enough, I am sure. Both are pointing in the right direction. (Burnham’s interventions are requiring the FA to at least look as though they are taking it seriously). That matters partly because there was a moment when UEFA, the FA looked ready to jump whenever the clubs said so – the G14 seemed to have a much more expansive agenda. Whether Platini gets very far, he has halted that. (I rather felt for Burnham over the Hillsborough memorial event: I felt you could tell how choked he was by the occasion before the protests. He is v.genuine is his Evertonianism).

Agree about AFC Wimbledon: enjoyed reading David Conn’s recent Guardian feature on them.

We haven’t looked at what has happened to mobility outside the top division, which would be a much larger undertaking. (Impressionistically, there are the parachute payments for relegated Premiership teams, which might help achieve the yo-yo effect of teams like Birmingham. But it is also striking that teams who drop can drop and drop – looking at the relegated trio of Norwich, Southampton and Charlton from the championship, and of course most dramatically Leeds. Part of this may well be linked to the ‘stratification’ issue: it must become more difficult to plan and budget sensibly across 3-5 years if the finances of playing in different divisions are like being on different planets).

Though part of the argument is that teams who achieve what Wimbledon and Wigan (and Swansea, Watford – who were 2nd in 1983 and others) now face much higher hurdles if they reach the top flight.

The old “re-election to football league” approach was pretty bad, and a fair pyramid system is a good thing. There was an absolute barrier to mobility.

20. the a&e charge nurse

To you the Mancs may be champions, Will, but according to Rafa they simply have a few more points than Liverpool.

Honestly, sometimes I doubt if Benitez even understands Benitez ;o)

Incidentally from what Rafa has said about his time at Valencia and indeed the wild stories that circulate about Real Madrid I doubt if Sunder’s level playing field will ever become a reality in Spain, or in Italy for that matter.

I believe clubs like Bayer Leverkusen (despite having considerable financial backing from the pharmaceutical giant) still lost Berbatov to Spurs and Ballack to Bayern (before moving on to Chelski) because they don’t want to get sucked into an unsustainable wages bill – needless to say Leverkusen have remained on the periphery of the champions league.

Isn’t Benitez’s line just a pitch to get more money to spend from Liverpool’s owners?


Your counter-argument was precisely what we were trying to examine – is this just the dominance of big teams, as has happened with Herbert Chapman, Bill Nicolson, Busby Shankly/Paisley, etc. We found strong and consistent evidence that it was much more than that – and that the last 10 years are significantly different from the 1980s and even the 1990s on all of the indicators.

I think that the eras of Liverpool and United dominance are pretty different in several key respects. Both won 11 titles in 17 years: the Guardian had a graphic yesterday comparing them: one of the interesting things is that there were ten different runners-up to Liverpool (with United second twice).

So in the 1980s, Everton, Villa and Spurs won three league titles, three FA Cups and a full set of the three European club trophies between them. After 1995, only once has league or cup (Portsmouth’s FA Cup in 2008) has been won by a non-big four club. (The major point is less that we want a ‘big six’ but that if about six or eight clubs can realistically compete for honours, then it is quite likely that any club in the top division could have a shot at winning something).

So perhaps a good deal (though probably not quite all) of the difference in outcomes between the 1970s and 1980s simply reflects how good Liverpool were, as broader indicators (not related specifically to Liverpool) were more stable. Whereas United’s ability to win within the big four is impressive, but more than this is going on. (How good United are can not explain the much reduced number of other top four clubs; or of promoted teams staying up or doing well; the less competitive Cup; why champions who aren’t United also have a significantly lower average league position the following year/five-ten years). It is plausible to suggests that many of the clubs who won things in the 1960s and 1970s could have achieved what Everton did in the 1980s in competing with Liverpool, but not what Arsenal/Chelsea did in the 1990s/2000s in competing with United.

While you are right that it may not be entirely frozen, I am not sure the top four is over-egged at all. It is not simply the ebb and flow of football. In six years, four clubs have occupied 23 of the 24 top four positions, excepting Everton 4th and Liverpool 5th in 2005. It was indeed a good deal more open than this before 2004: but it is significant that the Champions League rules changed in 2004, allowing four English clubs into the group stages. That is why it makes sense to regard it as ‘stratification’ driven by structural change. Paul Wilson set this out in The Obs in February. Ironically, that was n an over-optimistic double page spread on ‘the end of the monopoly’. In the end, in a season where Chelsea have sacked the manager and Arsenal feel they have struggled, the gap between Villa and Everton and the top four remains quite wide. But part of the problem of stratification is a tendency to get very excited about the possibility of a different team coming 4th, and treating that as a sign of competitiveness.

It is quite possible we could have (or already have to a large extent) a ‘big two’ and a ‘next two’, and where the 3rd or 4th clubs occasionally fall to 5th/6th place. After all, Liverpool are twenty years from a league title themselves. But that would still be uniquely stratified, in historic context. (The problem of being 3rd/4th may be a big issue if the Champions League structure changes again).

There were 13 top four finishers in the 1980s and 1990s (compared to 14 in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s). Which makes 7 in this decade quite a drastic change; no-one would be shocked if it is five or six in future. We will need three different new clubs to break into the top four over the next 10 years to maintain the 2000s level – not one example to simply show it isn’t entirely impossible.

Our question was not only whether anybody could compete with the big four, but who could do so. Leeds, Newcastle and Blackburn also exemplify this. In the years immediately before the Premiership and the first five years of it, they all finished in the top four in their first seaon as newly promoted clubs, and went on to win it or come very close within two-four years of coming up. Later, contenders Newcastle, Everton, Villa are much more established clubs. Top six finishes for promoted clubs fell from 20% to 3% from the 1990s to the 2000s.

That “room at the top” was combined with the historic pattern where some League Champions have always gone down within a decade (in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s).

Since this is not going to happen for the champions post-2000, and that is again a historic change. Our evidence suggests that we have probably lost both the room at the top and the downward mobility since the 1997 and 2003 Champions League restructuring.

As an example of political cliche and mixed metaphor this post is absolutely outstanding!

Again we see Sunder’s bias exposed and we’re expected to accept his biased conclusions. Stick to the day job, will you.

That said I have to credit Sunder with his lengthy attempts at retraction in the comments, but his selectivity of evidence is still appalling.

Any analysis of the structural changes must include a description of how the professional and amateur game has changed in a global context for it to begin to be relevant.

Since the pre-Hillsborough era (which happened to occur in the year the Berlin Wall came down) the football market has changed beyond compare. It has globalised. New professional leagues have sprung up in corners of the world where it was previously considered impossible to sustain them (Japan, UAE & USA among them).

The growth of the game means that comparisons have to be taken in context and any differences have multiplied.

Additionally it is highly selective to look solely at the names of those in the headline bracket. Why not try analysing the number and rate of change of clubs within the league structure?

I also take issue with the claim that the success rate of a club has anything to do with the resources available to it. Notionally all clubs are equal and the competition must be fair for the results to be meaningful: the rules require that they change ends at half-time to negate the effect of a sloping pitch; the double round-robin format means that there is not structural bias.

At the end of the day the league table does not lie.

The clubs which maintain consistent success are those which have maintained the most coherent philosophy and have applied policies in the most consistent way.

Looking at the clubs which have had temporary success we see incoherence and inconsistency ripping them asunder. It might have been over-dependence on a talented manager (eg Forest), on an unsustainable transfer policy (eg Leeds), or on a benevolent chairman (eg Blackburn, Chelsea), but all clubs eventually find their own level.

And this is without considering the basic tenet of the argument that corporate social mobility is more important than individual social mobility.

How many of the players were born with silver spoons in their mouths? How does the standing of the individuals at their retirement/death compare with their birth?

Frankly this article opens up so many more questions than it answers that it is only worth reading for amusement. Whatever Sunder has to say I’m now more inclined to listen to anybody else than him or Andy Burnham. The pros know far better what they’re doing than any politician does.


To you the Mancs may be champions, Will, but according to Rafa they simply have a few more points than Liverpool.

I read that, then read it again – and again.

I was like – does this guy understand winning the league? It is, after all, a league and not a knock out competition more points means you win.

But still scratching my head on that one.

“The governance of football has to work in the interests of all of the stakeholders of the game: they include the players interests, but that is not the sole objective.”

I dunno, do you really wanna tinker with a set of institutions that have successfully grown and appealed to people globally? Sure some teams have lost some value as a local identity, but think of the new role of the big clubs, in linking together people from across continents. Is this perhaps a metaphor for globalisation generally? Some local identities suffer but are replaced by new identities that work across borders along with much greater material prosperity.

I think this demonstrates what I hate about football these days; the presence of too many middle-class ponces. What other people have the time ot the inclination to write so much pretentious drivel?

Its the same old message, equality of outcome, instead of equality of opportunity. Lets scrap the present points system in football and award points for value added activity. Points for the quality of pies, inclusiveness, number of ethnic supporters, etc. Then, lets make the goals bigger, so that everyone can score. Then we can announce great improvements in entertainment. Lets base it on socialist education policies, but remember to exclude our own precious children.

27. the a&e charge nurse

Chavscum – on the theme of footie cuisine you may be interested in Tom Dickinson’s 92 ground sojourn to sample every pie in the 4 divisions.

I’m not sure if Tom is a ‘middle class ponce’ but he has been able to afford £3,000 in pursuit of the iconic working class pre-match snack, so I suspect he might be.


Have retracted nothing at all. I thought there were some good points made, particularly from some in agreeement with the thesis. There have been Inequality of outcome is fine – it is the point of the league system. So football is a metaphor for meritocracy and the unequal outcomes which result. What we have demonstrated is the loss of equality of opportunity, and the more level playing field, swapping this for a caste system. So off-the-field factors dominate, with on-the-field competitive meritocracy having been lost.

I think those who know football, with no ideological axe to grind, are inclined to agree.
It works as a purely football argument with no politics involved.Every fan knows the game is significantly different. Radio 5 gave this a decent hearing. You will not be pleased to know that The Times football section published a couple of our graphs today (page 7, The Game; not also online) in a box on “in a position to win”, noting that the graph of where league champions finished the year before shows that- “it was once an open field but since 1993 only teams from top 3 the previous season have triumped” and also arguing that the fall from 13-14 top four teams in every previous decade to seven “illustrates the stagnation of the league since the millennium”

Similarly, its hard to look at the FA Cup graphic, and argue that this is just noise and random outcomes.

And you as chief Fabian have no axe to grind?

What you’re talking about is the lack of social mobility based upon the example of a team which is not only the national champion, but the reigning continental and global champion!

Why instead don’t you looko at the recent examples of mobility based upon the new entrants to the league pyramid or the number of teams which have, like Reading or Hull which for the first time have competed in the top division.

Frankly, Sunder, you do yourself a disservice by complaining that I attacked your logic – I did no such thing. I attacked your false premise which you then logically developed to the entirely the wrong conclusion.

If you want more social mobility in football then look at the real reasons why it has reduced in recent years – the barriers of entry to European competition where the big money resides.

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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: What we can learn from football’s collapsed social mobility http://bit.ly/1aS0Ka

  2. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: What we can learn from football’s collapsed social mobility http://bit.ly/1aS0Ka

  3. josephjedwards

    There’s an absolutely fantasticly interesting post from Sunder Katwala on Liberal Conspiracy today: http://tinyurl.com/mobility-footie

  4. josephjedwards

    There’s an absolutely fantasticly interesting post from Sunder Katwala on Liberal Conspiracy today: http://tinyurl.com/mobility-footie

  5. What we can learn from football's collapsed social mobility | hilpers

    […] What we can learn from football’s collapsed social mobility http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/200…cial-mobility/ […]

  6. Premiership Football, Society and Social Mobility « Bad Conscience

    […] Other blogs, Politics, Society, Tax Justice at 6:56 pm by Paul Just in case anybody missed this at Liberal Conspiracy, Sunder Katwala – who is head honcho of the Fabian Society, and also blogs extensively at […]

  7. links for 2009-05-17 « Rumblegumption

    […] Liberal Conspiracy » What we can learn from football’s collapsed social mobility | creating a new… no comments yet « links for 2009-05-16 […]

  8. Sunder Katwala

    @MikeIon Thanks(!). Especially my concern with stalled ‘football mobility’ and loss of level playing field http://tiny.cc/lI6WV

  9. Sunder Katwala

    @Phillip_Blond agree re finance. Red Tories shd agree with meritocracy in sport? Yet 'football mobility' has collapsed http://bit.ly/8ZNeTR

  10. Sunder Katwala

    @kenanmalik Also downward mobility. Two 1990s champions relegated (11 years '92 and 4 years '95). More on this here http://t.co/C2G22ERK

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