With a population of fewer than nine million, London does not make a list of the biggest 20 cities in the world but in terms of football teams, it is undoubtedly one of the heaviest hitters anywhere on the globe. It may lag some way behind the North West giants Man United and Liverpool in terms of trophies won but when it comes to the sheer number of teams, London is by far the biggest football city in the UK and one of the biggest in the world too.
But just how many football teams are there in London? And which is the best? Who has the biggest stadium and the best fans? We’ll answer all these questions, and we’ll assess the biggest rivalries in London football, and we’ll even look at some London clubs that have sadly passed to the football league in the skies (i.e. have gone bust or been disbanded). In short, keep reading for the complete lowdown on London football teams.
How Many Teams Are There in London?
The answer one gives to this question depends on how we define London and whether we include only Premier League teams, sides from the top four divisions of English football, or we go even further and include teams from the National Leagues (in other words, teams that fall under “elite sport” definition as used by various authorities). The other obvious factor is time, with teams moving up and down divisions, sadly going out of business and even sometimes relocating (as of course Wimbledon did at the start of the 21st century).
For the purpose of this article, we will look at only the top four fully professional leagues in England, the Premier League, Championship, League One and League Two. We will also be talking about London teams that were in these divisions at the start of the 2020-21 season. Last of all, we will be using the generally accepted geographical region of London which includes the 33 local government districts. This means that teams like Watford are excluded, despite the fact that Watford itself is on the tube map, has London busses and is part of the London metropolitan area. Right, now we have the rules of engagement determined, which leaves us with 12 London football teams, as per the table below.
|AFC Wimbledon||League One||Merton||Plough Lane|
|Arsenal||Premier League||Islington||Emirates Stadium|
|Brentford||Championship||Brentford||Brentford Community Stadium|
|Charlton Athletic||League One||Charlton||The Valley|
|Chelsea||Premier League||Fulham||Stamford Bridge|
|Crystal Palace||Premier League||Selhurst||Selhurst Park|
|Fulham||Premier League||Fulham||Craven Cottage|
|Leyton Orient||League Two||Leyton||Brisbane Road|
|Queens Park Rangers||Championship||White City||Loftus Road / Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium|
|Tottenham Hotspur||Premier League||Tottenham||Tottenham Hotspur Stadium|
|West Ham United||Premier League||Stratford||London Stadium|
Note that the information above is based on their current stadia as of the 2020-21 season. As we can see, that means that London currently has six Premier League sides, meaning an impressive 30% of the English top flight are London-based. That’s being rather generous to Fulham who are destined for yet another return to the Championship for the 2021-22 campaign.
As well as the six top-tier teams, at the time of writing, London boasts three Championship sides, two in League One and one, Leyton Orient, who ply their trade in the fourth tier. So, from the 92 sides in the Premier League and Football League, 12, or just over 13%, are based in London. Interestingly, this is almost directly proportionate to the capital’s population, with a 2010 report stating that 12.5% of the UK population lived in the capital.
That said, to be accurate, we are looking at English football, not UK football. Therefore a fairer and more up to date figure shows that 56m people live in England and just under nine million (16%) of those are in London. On that basis, therefore, one might argue that London is under-represented in terms of fully professional football teams per capita.
Having said that we would confine our “London football teams” to the top four tiers, let us now, in somewhat contradictory fashion, give an honourable mention to some of the other London teams who didn’t quite make that cut. Note that the following sides fall under the “elite sport” umbrella of the top six tiers, once again as of the start of the 2020-21 season.
- National League (five sides) – Barnet, Bromley, Dagenham & Redbridge, Sutton United, Wealdstone.
- National League South (three sides) – Dulwich Hamlet, Hampton & Richmond Borough, Welling United.
That gives us a total of 20 elite football teams in London but which is the best? Well, of course, if you are a fan of Welling United, Wealdstone or even West Ham, they are the best in your eyes. But let’s take a more objective look at things.
Who Is the Best Football Team in London?
Of the football teams in London, most modern fans would probably say Chelsea are the best and those that disagreed would point to Arsenal. In a discussion over who is the best anything there will always be debate and disagreement but it would certainly seem fair to look a little further back into the annuls of football than just the past few seasons, or even the Premier League era. So, let’s go right back to the start of the Football League and look at what major honours London’s biggest sides have won and how they compare with each other.
Arsenal certainly have a very strong claim to be London’s best football team and if any single stat supports that, it is their tally of 13 top flight titles. Chelsea fans should look away now because that is more than twice as many as the Pensioners can boast.
In addition, no side has won more FA Cups than Arsenal, so if we are talking domestic silverware, Arsenal are not just the capital’s best football team, they are arguably its dominant force. You can see a full list of Arsenal’s major honours below:
- League Titles: 13 – Gunners won their first title in 1931 and lifted the trophy five times in the 1930s. Most recent success was in 2004.
- FA Cups: 14 – Arsenal have made the FA Cup final a record 21 times, winning two thirds of those.
- League Cup: 2 – Not a competition Arsenal have thrived in, they last lifted this trophy in 1993.
- European Honours – Arsenal have never won Europe’s biggest prize, losing the 2006 Champions League final to Barcelona. They won the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994 and the Fairs Cup in 1970.
Sunderland have won the league title as many times (six) as Chelsea and been runners-up on more occasions (five versus four), whilst six clubs have finished top of the pile more than the Blues. For a long time, their only success had come in 1955 but then the Roman Abramovich era came and Chelsea fans experienced a period of success the club had never before attained. Even so, it is hard to argue that Chelsea are historically a better club than Arsenal based on trophies alone.
- League Titles: 6 – Chelsea have been one of England’s best sides of the 21st century, claiming five league titles between 2005 and 2017.
- FA Cups: 8 – The West London outfit did not win an FA Cup until 1970 but have added seven more from a total of 15 final appearances.
- League Cup: 5 – This competition is one in which Chelsea can claim to be London’s finest with an impressive five victories between 1965 and 2015.
- European Honours: Domestically, Chelsea trail their rivals in the north of the city but in Europe their Champions league success in 2012 gives them the edge. They have also won the Europa League twice, plus the European Super Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup (twice, in 1971 and 1998). They are also in the UCL final in 2021 and lost in the 2008 final, giving them a clear lead in terms of continental glory.
It may surprise some football fans to learn that Spurs are the only other London football club to have ever won the English title. They have done so just twice and not since 1961. For reference that puts them alongside Preston, Derby, Burnley and Portsmouth as the 15th most successful English side on this metric. It would take some very creative accounting and impressive debating to make a serious case that Spurs are the best side in London. Here’s their roll of honour:
- League Titles: 2 – Spurs love it when the year ends in one and claimed their first title in 1951, adding their second, as part of a league and cup double, 10 years later in 1961.
- FA Cups: 8 – Spurs have won eight out of the nine FA Cup finals in which they’ve competed, the best win percentage of any side to have made at least six finals. Wins in 1901, 1921, 1961, 1981 and 1991 helped create the “year ends in one” narrative. 2031 it is then, Spurs fans?
- League Cups: 4 – A solid four League Cups for Tottenham, including one in 1971 and their most recent piece of major silverware in 2008.
- European Honours: Under the legendary double-winning boss Bill Nicholson, Spurs lifted the 1963 European Cup Winners’ Cup. Since then they have added the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) twice, in 1972 and 1984. They may trail Chelsea but this is at least one area where they can best their fiercest and nearest rivals Arsenal.
The Best Team in London Is Arsenal
Based solely on on-field success we would have to say that Arsenal are the best team in London. They are so far ahead when it comes to the two biggest domestic trophies that their relatively poor performances in the League Cup and in Europe can be, if not overlooked, certainly offset somewhat. With a whopping 27 successes in the big two domestic competitions, they have triumphed far more than Chelsea and Spurs combined and so we cannot look past the Gunners as the kings of the capital.
13 FA Cup Wins
Much of Arsenal’s success was, admittedly before 1971, with that year being when they claimed the eighth of their 13 league titles. That is now 50 years ago and in terms of the 21st century, they trail Chelsea by two Premier Leagues to five. In terms of the FA Cup, the London duo has both enjoyed truly staggering success in recent times. In 21 FA Cup finals this century they boast an incredible 13 wins, plus a further five appearances in the final, between then with Arsenal edging the wins seven to six.
As well as talking about more modern results, Chelsea fans will also point to their European success. They may yet add glory in 2021 to their success in the 2012 Champions League and as the only London side able to boast they have ruled the continent, some Chelsea fans may suggest they are the city’s premier side. With four other major European trophies (excluding the Super Cup) they have undoubtedly done far better than Arsenal in this regard.
Even so, at the start of the season, the league title is the primary aim for all top clubs and so we have to stand by our verdict: Arsenal are the best London football team. In addition to their many major English trophies, the Gunners also have another key stat they can point to: top flight longevity.
Record for the Most Consecutive Seasons in the Top Tier of English Football
Arsenal hold the record for the most consecutive seasons in the top tier of English football with 96. Indeed, only Everton (118), Villa (107) and Liverpool (106) have spent more seasons than Arsenal’s 104 in the top flight. Spurs and Chelsea lag some way behind with 86, whilst West Ham have battled through 63 campaigns in the top tier.
Spurs fans may feel aggrieved that they have not merited full discussion in this debate but the honours board really does speak for itself. And of course, we have not even looked at West Ham (three FA Cups) or QPR, who have won the League Cup, because they are simply so far behind London’s “Big Three”.
Northern Dominance: Derbies Hurt But Travel Helps
For all that Arsenal have achieved incredible success, they lag well behind the powerhouses of the North West on almost every metric. As we have discovered, both Merseyside giants have completed more seasons in the top flight than any southern side. But it is in terms of league titles where the dominance of the north, in particular the two North West teams who play in red, is most striking.
As we have detailed, three London clubs have shared 21 league titles between them but Manchester United alone have won 20, whilst Liverpool have won 19. In city terms, those two rival metropolises have 27 (including Man City’s seventh title in 2020-21) and 28 (nine for Everton) top flight league titles respectively.
Liverpool & Man United in Comparison
The dominance of the North West is even more pronounced when we consider European glory, with Liverpool’s six European Cup/Champions League titles and Man United’s three really putting the London teams in the shade. United, Liverpool, City and Everton also boast 30 FA Cups and 21 League Cups between them and that is before we even get to the many trophies (of all types) won by supposedly lesser northern clubs such as Blackburn (three league titles, six FA Cups and one League Cup) and the two Sheffield clubs (who boast a combined 13 major trophies between them).
One of the most striking stats among the many we have detailed may well be that only three London clubs have ever lifted the top flight title. Some have suggested that the number of London derbies teams have to face works against sides from the capital. For example, as of the 2020-21 season, Chelsea, who will end as London’s top side, will have had to play 10 derby matches against other London teams.
As we explain below when we look at London rivalries, there are not many truly fierce derby clashes in the capital that have the same fervour as Sunderland versus Newcastle (to give just one example). But even so, it is easy to see how having to play 10 games that are technically derbies could make things harder for London sides. Whilst a game at Fulham or Crystal Palace might appear a relatively easy fixture for the likes of Man City, when Arsenal, Spurs or Chelsea make the short journey to their neighbour’s ground, the fans are a little more energised and the players bite into those tackles possibly just a little bit harder.
The fact there are so many of these matches means that the odd dropped point, or points, here and there is almost inevitable. In contrast, Liverpool only have to face Everton and Man City only have a derby against United. How much this factor can explain the relatively poor achievement of London sides is hard to say but it is an argument with at least some merit.
That said, could London teams actually benefit from the proximity of the other teams? In modern times, travel is far quicker and easier than it was in the past but even so, frequent long journeys to matches cannot help. The cumulative travel for teams like Newcastle and Brighton is surely a lot more than for many other teams, including the London clubs who have five short away days. Less time travelling means more time for preparation and fresher players, so this might perhaps offset some of the disadvantages the capital’s clubs experience.
No matter what the reasons are though, the facts are clear: even London’s best side, in terms of trophies, Arsenal, lags some way behind Man United and Liverpool. Moreover, in football terms, London has to be regarded as the third-class citizen of English football.
Biggest Football Stadia in London
The capital might be lacking in terms of silverware but there are some truly stunning football stadia spread across the city and London itself could virtually hold a major tournament singlehandedly. There are stadia to suit matches of all sizes too, whilst there is also a good mix of shiny new facilities and some of more historic, traditional structures. The table below details the biggest and best London has to offer and although it is not home to a London side we have also included the national stadium, Wembley.
|Tottenham||Tottenham Hotspur Stadium||62,850||2019||£1.2bn|
|West Ham United||London Stadium||60,000||2012||£486m (plus £274m renovation/conversion costs)|
Note that the information above is subject to change and/or debate, with capacities sometimes fluid and costs frequently debated. In addition, stated costs are based on the figures at the time rather than being adjusted for inflation.
As we can see, and as Spurs fans may be keen to point out, when it comes to having the biggest (Wembley aside) and most expensive football stadium in London, Tottenham are out in front. Indeed, the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium has won many awards and has been ranked the best in the world. £1.2bn well spent then!
With regards to that figure, it is worth noting that the stadium itself was just a part of a wider development scheme called the Northumberland Development Project. The cost of the stadium was estimated at £350m-£400m out of £850m for the total project. However, around the time of the stadium opening, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy said the cost had reached around the billion-pound mark. Later still, in 2020, Levy stated that the final cost was £1.2bn. How accurate this was is unclear but no matter what, it is safe to say that Spurs spent an astronomical sum on their impressive new home and it is undoubtedly one of the best stadia in the world.
Biggest Rivalries in London Football
For many, including us, there can only be one place to start when it comes to football rivalry in the UK capital: Leyton Orient versus West Ham. Okay, not really. Yes, you guessed it, we are of course alluding to the “North London derby” between Spurs and Arsenal. This is the biggest and best in a number of ways and here we offer some derby facts and stats to show just why this particular rivalry means so much.
- Success – This is a derby between two sides that have consistently been among the capital’s best. These rivals are both among London’s biggest three clubs, making this the biggest London derby there is.
- History – This derby dates back to 1909 (though 1887 in some form) and has been played a whopping 203 times, the high number reflecting the fact that these sides have so often been in the top flight and have both enjoyed a great deal of cup success.
- Proximity – London is a big area and not all of its derbies are between sides that are geographically close. Both teams have moved over the years and there is now around four miles between the two stadia. The rivalry really became fierce when Arsenal moved from Plumstead in the south to Highbury, which was Spurs territory at the time.
- Huge Games – With both sides enjoying success, it is no surprise that there have been some huge clashes between the rivals over the years. They have met in a number of cup semi finals over the years (though never a final) as well as matches that have decided the title one way or another.
- Equal – A rivalry cannot maintain a real edge when the teams are mismatched but for much of their histories, Spurs and Arsenal have been relatively even. Overall Arsenal lead the head to head but not by much and in the 21st century, Tottenham have finished above their rivals in the Premier League a number of times.
Some would argue that the Arsenal versus Spurs rivalry is the only true elite derby in London football. In modern times as they have competed at the top, Arsenal and Chelsea have had a rivalry, whilst Chelsea and Spurs also have a bit of “beef” too. Tottenham and West Ham are also fairly big rivals, as are Millwall and West Ham, Chelsea and Fulham, and Fulham versus QPR, to name just a few.
But only Spurs versus Arsenal ticks all the key boxes of a true derby, at least if we are talking about in the Premier League/top tier. Other London games lack one or more of the key factors, be it proximity, spice (we’re using this as a euphemism for real hatred) or simply regularly competing against each other.
Millwall & West Ham
Perhaps the biggest derby aside from the North London one is between Millwall and West Ham, occasionally known as the South versus East London derby or more commonly the Dockers derby. Depending on your mode of transport there is between six and eight miles separating the historic homes of these sides and a little less now West Ham have moved. Millwall is resolutely sarf London, with West Ham tied to its east end heartland.
As well as not being true local rivals, these clubs have frequently occupied different divisions, meaning they have played each other only around 100 times. Many of those came outside the Football League in the pre-World War I era. They have only spent 12 seasons in the same tier of the Football League and, obviously, this has limited the rivalry’s growth.
However, what this derby/rivalry lacks in these regards, it certainly makes up for in the feelings of animosity between the fans. Sadly extreme violence has been a key part of what is essentially a sporting rivalry with deaths not unheard of. West Ham’s Inter City Firm and the Millwall Bushwackers have frequently clashed, with hooligan violence still a sad fact of life, though nowhere near as bad as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. There is real hatred felt between fans of these clubs at times though and no doubt the police and football authorities have been rather thankful that they have shared the pitch so infrequently.
Oldest Club in London
Historic reports of football-like games in London date back to the 12th century, with “football” being made illegal by King Henry IV in 1409. Needless to say, these games were nothing like modern football and that really dates from the end of the 19th century.
As with so much from so long ago, there is debate about who was the first club but many accept Notts County as being the oldest football club in the world (including themselves!). The official Notts County site states that they are “now universally recognised as the world’s oldest Football League club” and were formed in 1862.
Possibly Fulham, But It’s Debatable
Of the current London clubs, it would seem that Fulham are the oldest, having been founded in 1879. That said, they were initially a joint football and cricket club, with more of a focus on the latter, and going by the name of Fulham St Andrew’s Church Sunday School FC. Spurs, as Hotspur Football Club, and QPR, followed in 1882, with Millwall being formed in 1885 and Arsenal in, according to their official history, in “late 1886”. Other smaller London sides followed before West Ham in 1895, Chelsea on the 10th March 1905 and Crystal Palace later the same year.
As said, there is certainly plenty of mud in these historical waters, chiefly because clubs evolved out of others, changed their names, relocated, merged or some combination of these things. According to Arsenal’s official history it was “late 1886” that “a gaggle of workers from the Woolwich Arsenal Armament Factory decided to form a football team. They called themselves Dial Square…” which was a reference to a sundial above the factory entrance.
Even in these early days, there were name changes, with Dial Square FC becoming Woolwich Arsenal and being elected to the Second Division of the Football League. The official Arsenal history states that this made them “London’s only professional club” and therefore its oldest but we’ll let you unpick the history for yourself, with the tag of “oldest club in London” possibly belonging to Fulham if we move which current football team can trace its roots back the furthest.
Gone But Not Forgotten: London Teams No Longer With Us
Given football’s long history and the ever-changing nature of life, it should be no surprise that over the years a number of London clubs have come and gone. A number of these are sides that most football fans, certainly from outside the relevant areas of London would never have heard of.
Some of the smaller and/or very earliest sides that no longer exist are included in the table below, along with the odd name that will be familiar to the wider football community.
There are stories behind all of these clubs, even though some lasted just a few seasons, but we will look at just a few of the biggest. The one name that modern fans will certainly be familiar with is Wimbledon, most famous for the victory of the so-called Crazy Gang over Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final. Wimbledon’s success was incredible, not least because they had been in the fourth tier of English football as recently as 1983.
The Wombles were loved and hated in equal measure, with managers such as Dario Gradi, Dave Bassett, Bobby Gould and Joe Kinnear getting under the skin of other bosses, largely because of their constant over-achievement. Wimbledon played a very aggressive, physical style of football which also made them unpopular, with players such as Vinnie Jones, John Fashanu, Dave Beasant, Lawrie Sanchez, Robbie Earle and John Hartson maintaining that ethos over an extended period.
It all came to an end for Wimbledon in 2004 though when they were renamed Milton Keynes Dons in 2004 having moved out of London in 2003. Angry fans created a new club in 2002, AFC Wimbledon, and despite having to start at the bottom of the football pyramid a fine run of promotions has the London “phoenix club” back inside the Football League and back at “their” old ground of Plough Lane in Merton.
Wimbledon are not the only side on our list with serious FA Cup pedigree though. Wanderers, founded in 1859 as Forest FC before changing their name five years later, won the first-ever FA Cup back in 1872. They were an amateur side back then and the competition was formally known as the Football Association Challenge Cup at this time. Wanderers, whose team was mostly made up of former Harrow pupils, were the dominant force in the early years of the FA Cup. They won the first two FA Cups and added a further three (in consecutive years) before the 1870s were over.
Clapham Rovers also enjoyed FA Cup success in this period, losing the 1879 final to Old Etonians before beating Oxford University in the final 12 months on. Rovers also hold the distinction, though this may be hard to verify 100%, of scoring the first-ever FA Cup goal.
Another of our now-defunct London football teams can trump FA Cup glory though. Upton Park played in the first-ever FA Cup but their real moment of glory came 29 years later when they represented Great Britain at the Olympics, winning gold at the Games’ first ever football tournament.
Upton Park were dissolved in 1887, re-forming four years later before a second, and seemingly final death knell sounded in 1911. Their history may be short but being the only London side able to boast Olympic gold, perhaps we should declare them, and not Arsenal, the best team in the capital?