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  • Writer's pictureWill Uglow

The Westcountry - English Football's weak link, or a sleeping giant?

Updated: May 9, 2021

Footballers aren't alone in having punishing fixture schedules forced upon them by the recent pandemic, their oval-balled cousins are much the same. When Rugby Union's Premiership kicked off again in November 2020, a mere 27 days had passed since the imperious Exeter Chiefs secured their first ever league and European Cup double with victory over London Wasps at Twickenham. And despite setting not quite as imperious standards this campaign, there's no doubt that the men from Sandy Park have marked out a giant red marker for Devon on Union's global map. And it's not just the Chiefs, now settling into their second unbroken decade of top flight competition, who are flying the Westcountry flag. Bath, Bristol and Gloucester ensure that the South West make up over a third of 2020/21's 11 Premiership teams. These 4 clubs hold 8 domestic titles between them.

A Rugby Union stronghold, no doubt. You'd have thought this success would be reflected somewhat in the region's football equivalents? Well...

Admittedly, the Westcountry is certainly well served for Football League clubs (with Torquay United, Yeovil Town and now Weymouth bubbling just underneath the surface in the National League). Plymouth Argyle, Exeter City, Bristol City, Bristol Rovers, Cheltenham Town and Forest Green Rovers make up 6 of the 92. Not bad, right? Unfortunately, that's about where the comparisons to the region's success with the oval ball stop. Of these 6 sides, only Bristol City have ever tasted the rarified air of the top flight, most recently in 1979/80. None have ever won a domestic trophy, City reaching the sole FA Cup final of this sextet in 1909, losing out 1-0 to Manchester United. As for European glory? Err, Argyle played Real Madrid in a 2006 friendly, does that count?

At a stretch, we could include former Premier League incumbents Swindon Town and Bournemouth in the mix. Both are pushing it a bit, however (as are Cheltenham and Forest Green, in all honesty). Swindon is closer to London than Plymouth, while Bournemouth hold about as loose a connection to the 'Westcountry' as is possible to get away with. Neither are usually referred to as 'South West' clubs and so, much as we'd like to bolster the region's footballing CV with Eddie Howe's recent Cherries heroics, it's probably a tad unfair. Swindon Town's sole top flight campaign in 1993-94 conceding a record 100 goals? OK, we're happy to not take ownership of that one.

The 2007/08 Championship season provides perhaps the biggest 'sliding doors' moment of recent times for the region's clubs. Bristol City and Plymouth Argyle, probably the 2 local sides best set up to make a breakthrough in terms of support and resources, were both in contention for promotion to the promised land of the Premier League. The Robins fell at the sharp end of the sword, losing 1-0 to Hull City at Wembley in a play off final settled by Dean Windass' memorable thunderbolt volley. Plymouth, having finished 10th and reached an FA Cup Quarter Final the previous year, inherited Hull's unfortunate tag as the largest city in England never to have hosted top flight football. Neither have come as close since...

Of course, all of the region's clubs have storied histories, famous players, momentous victories and memorable matches to look back on. But the nagging feeling of untapped potential remains - if any English regional area has failed to push above it's footballing weight over the past 150 years or so, is it us? And if so, why?

One potential reason lies in the simple logistics of UK geography. A quick look on Google Maps at Great Britain in all its KFC chicken drumstick shaped glory reveals just how isolated the South West peninsula is from the main bulk of the country, restricting access to the big cities, and hence, footballing hotbeds. The roots of the modern English club game were planted in the late 19th century in large urban areas such as London, as well as the game's heartlands in the Midlands and the North. And it is largely in these areas that the ripest fruit, both in terms of clubs and players, have grown from and flourished. The outlying branches such as the South West have mostly had to make do with the leftover pickings.

English football's money and riches, as in many other industries, have mostly circulated around its central roots, struggling to reach out into the extremities. Clubs of all shapes, sizes and locations increasingly rely on well moneyed owners to progress. And while these sugar daddies aren't impossible to come across in this neck of the woods (Bristol City's Steve Lansdown also owns Bristol Rugby and has invested millions into the club), the South West faces a few obstacles to attracting them.

Travel is the most obvious bugbear. Top class air access to the region effectively stops at Exeter, while many will remember how the rail service to Cornwall and large parts of Devon was temporarily wiped out after harsh storms in early 2014 decimated the coastal line at Dawlish. And by road? Let's face it, it's a long and sometimes tedious journey from upcountry whether you approach from east or north. Anyone sick of the sight of the M5 Bridgewater Willow Man will empathise...

For any wealthy investors not already put off from setting up shop in the region by commute related chaos, the somewhat poor coverage of the region in football media hardly helps. The saturation of Premier League coverage means that an EFL or domestic cup game featuring a local side is often treated with an air of novelty, chock full of overblown clichés about the "marathon / mammoth / gargantuan" journeys involved for the away side. Bristol Rovers against a Yorkshire side is bad enough, Plymouth vs Sunderland is practically 'journey to mars' territory for Sky Sports. Regardless of the scoreline, the most important talking point in games concerning local sides seems to be the overworked mileage counter ticking away in the team coach. The journeys, of course, are long, but the South West is hardly exclusive in this regard. Someone at the BBC is going to have a field day if Truro City ever draw Newcastle in the FA Cup...

It's a similar issue with players and managers, just how do you persuade top level talent to commute down this far? After all, not every coach takes Neil Warnock's attitude - living in Devon whilst currently managing nearby Middlesbrough... The majority of current EFL Westcountry managers have some sort of local connection, which is admirable but perhaps also demonstrates a reluctance from those originating from further afield to relocate. Plymouth Argyle's Ryan Lowe is a notable outlier, the former Bury coach and native Liverpudlian clearly seeing the potential for ongoing progress with the Pilgrims. As for players, top level talent will generally only move for top money, which brings us back to the importance of attracting top level owners. And then there's the added roadblock of trying to sell the region to player's families. Let's face it, whose partner is going to choose Drake's Circus over Piccadilly Circus?

Does this all sniff of a touch of 'negativity bias?' Surely there are other regions in the English footballing spectrum that have struggled to shine as bright as others? Of course, there are a few, but there's not quite the same level of isolation involved, given their relative proximity to either London or the Northern footballing powerhouses. Cumbria and the far North West is hardly a footballing oasis, although even Carlisle United did manage to clamber up to the old Division 1 in the early 1970's - Newcastle and Leeds are relatively untroubling drives away however. Leicester's fairytale title triumph in 2016 brought unexpected glory to the relatively quiet East Midlands. And whilst Kent fans only have Gillingham to cheer about, the capital is a fairly quick drive away.

And so what should Westcountry football be aiming for? What seriously can be achieved? Perhaps the model club case study doesn't come from England at all... Swansea City fans will empathise with the sense of being marooned in a footballing backwater without much in the way of regional or historic footballing glory (sorry, Cardiff). They have, however, overcome such circumstances to enjoy a golden era of recent success. 7 successive years of Premier League football. League Cup success in 2013. Taking Napoli close in the Europa League knockout stages. And now looking upwardly mobile again, back in the Championship Play-Offs with a chance of a top flight return.

How did they achieve this? As recently as 2003 they looked to be dropping out of the Football League altogether. The real key seemed to be finding a team of committed, sensible but ambitious owners who instilled a clear, distinctive playing philosophy early on and believed in it. Of course, a bit of cash helped too - the Swans relocated from their worn out Vetch Field home to the modern Liberty Stadium in 2005. The League One title followed in 2008. With this sustainable platform in place, the Swans flew (yes, I know, just go with it!). Top managers started to arrive - Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers, Michael Laudrup - all committed to playing 'The Swansea Way'. Premier League status was secured in 2011 and a decade later, no Swansea fan is left bemoaning an awkward location on the footballing map.

For the South West's more forward thinking clubs, this has to be the aim. Sustainable success under committed owners with a clear sense of identity, how the club should be run and how the team should play. The Westcountry is a wonderful region, as anyone lucky enough to call it home will likely testify. To see it pushing its weight on the football field and producing teams known for style and results rather than marathon away trips is a vision shared by many. The foundations lain down by the Chiefs of Exeter and the Swans of Swansea should light the way ahead...

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