London rapidly becoming Premier League's most desirable place to play
London's calling. It's telling you that the capital of England is the centre of Premier League power. Thirty years ago, Merseyside was the focus of English football. Five years ago it looked like Manchester would rule the roost. Today, London is more buoyant than ever.
This weekend proves it. All six of the capital's Premier League clubs are still in the FA Cup. While that is not so unusual, what is different this time is that all of those teams think they can win the competition.
Tottenham Hotspur are growing in confidence, fighting for success on three fronts and have a home draw. Arsenal are looking for three FA Cups in a row as they battle for three trophies, too. They can afford to rest some regulars against Hull City. West Ham United can envisage a trip to Wembley before they move to the Olympic Stadium next year and will not fear Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. Watford are chasing a Europa League place and have a winnable home tie against Leeds United. Chelsea, in the midst of an awful season by their standards, have everything to play for in the Champions League and will face a weakened Manchester City, whose European fixtures have not fallen so kindly. Even Crystal Palace, bringing up the rear in the Premier League for London, will fancy their chances against Spurs, who might have their minds on other, bigger prizes.
In the Premier League era, there were two occasions when the capital had seven representatives in the top division, but in 1994-95 one was relegated and another flirted with the drop. In 2006-07, two clubs went down and two barely escaped the trapdoor. This season, none of the capital's clubs have looked in real danger of relegation and all six could still finish in the top 10.
Why has the balance of power shifted south? The "lesser" London clubs have benefitted most from the television money that has levelled the financial playing field. They can pay wages that outstrip the most extravagant Serie A sides and offer a sophisticated major-city location.
Alex Song's natural career trajectory after leaving Barcelona on loan would have been to join a big club. Once, a player like the Cameroonian midfielder would have laughed at the thought of going to West Ham while in his prime. Yet the mixture of location and competitive wages brought the 28-year-old to Upton Park. The Hammers can afford to shop for a higher level of player than in the past. If the move to the Olympic Stadium works, the potential for West Ham is enormous.
It is easy to underestimate the attraction of a city like London to foreign players. When Liverpool were courting Alexis Sanchez, they offered the Chilean a considerably higher salary than Arsenal. The forward chose to take lower wages to live in England's biggest city. Stan Collymore, the former Liverpool and Aston Villa striker who is now a radio-show pundit, believes that the pull of the capital is so strong for foreign players that one day provincial clubs might base their training grounds in the metropolitan London area and transport their squads to the outlying regions for games. It sounds far-fetched, but the thought process has some foundation in reality. Almost every nation that produces footballers has a community living in London. It is a home away from home if a player needs support.
Money has made a huge difference, even to what were considered "unfashionable" clubs. Watford have been a revelation this season. Under Quique Sanchez Flores, they have defended well, broken fast and delivered a bloody nose to some of the division's more established clubs. They were bought by the Pozzo family four years ago as an English feeder club for Udinese, the Serie A side. The financial balance of power shifted when Watford got promotion to the Premier League, though. Now the Hertfordshire club are the jewel in the Pozzo collection of teams, which also includes Granada. Watford's spending power is already more than twice as big as Udinese's. Next season the gap will widen even more.
Crystal Palace have attracted investment from new American owners -- in part because of their location -- and should recover from their injury crisis and striker shortage to finish the season safely. With Alan Pardew at the helm, they will be stronger and more competitive next season.
The worry for the rest of the Premier League is that the smaller London clubs will continue to get stronger. Arsenal can already vie with the best for players and Tottenham will be even more attractive if they seal Champions League football. Chelsea, even after a disappointing season, are still one of the continent's top clubs. However, while West Ham, Watford and Palace may lose out if they are competing with Manchester United and Liverpool for players, they have a massive advantage over Everton, Newcastle United and Stoke City. London is a magnet for players in a way that Merseyside, Tyneside and the Potteries can never be.
It would be no surprise to see five of the capital's six clubs in the draw for the FA Cup's sixth round. The title could well take the short journey from SW6 to north London come May. Even the city's first Champions League win since Chelsea's surprise win in 2012 is not beyond possibility, with Arsenal and Chelsea capable of springing upsets.
London is calling and the noise is only likely to get louder. It may well become the unquestioned Premier League place to be in the next few years.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.