The story of football in the West Midlands: Where did it all go wrong?

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Professor John Samuels 
The Department of Accounting


Sport is now a big business and, like it or not, football is the most high-profile and followed sport. Successful football clubs result in significant financial returns to those involved with the club, city, and region. It boosts brand value and the city becomes associated with success.

The West Midlands, however, has missed opportunities to enhance its football profile as well as the reputation of the region. In the past, West Midlands football clubs were amongst the leading teams in the country, but since big money came into the game just over 25 years ago, local clubs have enjoyed, at best, modest success.

Contributing factors to the West Midlands failed football success

From a British point of view, the country is often just seen as the north versus the south, whether this is in respect to the economy, politics and even sports. The Midlands is frequently overlooked; Birmingham has not succeeded in being recognised officially as the city of culture, it lost out to Manchester to be home of the BBC,  and has failed numerous times to attract the Olympic Games.

From a local political point of view, Birmingham as a city has not been well run over recent decades. A government report highlighted many problems with the way the city is being governed; there were even threats to send government administrators to intervene.

On the contrary, Manchester continues to prosper due to its highly successful football club and music scene, which in part is thanks to the city’s good civil leadership. It is a symbiotic relationship; the clubs generate high income – some of which is spent in the city – and attract tourism, which then creates more jobs. As a result, the clubs are able to build big stadiums and continue to receive support. Birmingham would like to be recognised and respected as England’s second city, unfortunately, neither the local football teams nor the city does much to help.

The main responsibility for the lack of success must, however, lie with those who have run the local clubs over the last few decades – the owners and executives who have made the decisions. Opportunities have been missed, especially since English football became global and local clubs have been left behind. For example, when Doug Ellis left Aston Villa and leadership was taken over by Randy Lerner, there was hope for the future but, despite a large investment, little was achieved. At Birmingham City, when the Gold brothers and David Sullivan sold the club, they did well for themselves, but under the leadership of mysterious businessmen from Hong Kong and China, they have gone backwards. Wolves and Albion with their new owners have done quite well, but they are far from being elite clubs.

Prospects of a brighter future for West Midlands football clubs

Money is the key to success. Four out of six elite English clubs are competing in the two top European competitions, bringing even more money into the top echelons of the English game. Success on the pitch depends on the size of a club’s wage bill. The best players, with the help of their agents, receive the highest wages. The Midlands clubs have been left far behind. The wage bill at Manchester City is over four times that of top Midlands clubs. The inequality is increasing, and unfortunately, the West Midlands clubs are now amongst the also-rans*. This is not good for local supporters, Birmingham, or the region. This weekend, the pressure is on for Aston Villa to win the playoff against Derby County; the successful team could earn up to £170m. This isn’t something either team is willing to risk.

In my book, I explore the history of football in relation to governance, ownership and management, rather than with their so-called iconic players. I delve into why local clubs have failed, whether success in football would have benefited the region and what the future holds. Football has undoubtedly played an integral part of the West Midlands’ sporting history, and from that history we must learn where it went wrong, in order to get it right.

* Teams that are not a part of the six elite English clubs, therefore are not involved in wider discussions with other top European clubs.

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