Football is the UK’s national sport, and you don’t need to go far before you see parks and playgrounds with those iconic rectangular goal posts promising an escape from school and work and making you feel like a superstar, even if it’s just for one rainy afternoon. Local communities are brought together by their local clubs, but these are typically non-league outfits, with a ticket costing no more than a fiver.
For many, the local teams are where a love of football began, at least way back when before the biggest games were syndicated widely across TV channels. Looking at the bigger picture, though, the UK is the home of the most significant clubs in the world. With the Premier League, Football League, and the Ladbrokes Premiership in Scotland attracting eyes from all over the world, UK clubs have arguably the biggest following for one reason or another. But which are the most popular?
We’re well aware that we’re about to upset someone (it’s impossible to please everybody, after all), but here are the most popular football clubs the UK has to offer.
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Undoubtedly the biggest club in England, and perhaps the biggest English club in the world, Manchester United spent 20 years dominating English football, winning 13 league titles, four FA Cups, and conquering Europe twice in between 1990 and 2013, though their fortunes have not been so kind since then, despite another FA Cup and Europa League victory in the past five years.
Founded in 1878 and Newton Heath, the club changed its name to Manchester United in 1902, and won its first league title in 1908, with another victory in 1910. It took Manchester United 40 years to taste victory again as they established themselves as a force in the First Division under Sir Matt Busby, even with the Munich Air Disaster, and they were the first English Cup to taste European glory, winning the Champions’ Cup in 1965.
The club dropped off slightly in the years following Busby’s departure, but they eventually found a worthy successor in Sir Alex Ferguson, who led United to their most dominant period that coincided with the birth of the Premier League. Arguably, it is because of Ferguson that United are the club they are today.
If we’re going to talk about Manchester United, we also need to discuss Liverpool. For decades, they were the team in the UK, dominating domestic and European competition in the 1970s and 80s under Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, and Kenny Dalglish. In this time, theory won eleven league titles and four European trophies, a record for British clubs.
This success bred a passionate fan base that is still active today, no least because of the recent resurgence and league title victory under Jurgen Klopp following 30 years of ups and downs that saw them somewhere between getting so close they could taste it, or even written off entirely.
Liverpool has 30 million followers on Instagram, and Anfield regularly sells out, with the famous Kop End that is known worldwide as both an inspiring and intimidating place when the place gets going. Liverpool may have stuttered in their title defence this season, but that will hardly affect their popularity. If anything, it will have their fans craving a bigger reaction next season.
You could consider Manchester City the New Kids on the Block when you compare them to the likes of Liverpool and their Manchester neighbours, but that isn’t exactly the case. While they do not have the supposed history of other successful clubs, they have always had a dedicated following. In fact, there was a joke that permeated stands and pubs that you could only find City fans in Manchester, and you’d need to go elsewhere to find fans of Manchester United.
Their recent success has certainly boosted their profile both in the UK and worldwide, and it propelled them even beyond the level they were at during the late 60s where they won the League, European Cup WinnersCup and both FA and League Cups. A period of decline in the 80s saw their stock drop dramatically, but investment backed up by a clear plan and fantastic recruitment has made them perennial title contenders, so it’s no surprise they are one of the most popular clubs in the UK.
Like Manchester City, Chelsea is looked at as a club that has only just established themselves at the big boys’ table, with rival fans claiming they have bought their success, rather than earned it. We’re not here to cast aspersions on the why or how, and all that matters is how popular Chelsea are.
They were the first club to receive significant outside investment following Roman Abramovich’s takeover in 2003, and this allowed them to build on the success they experienced in the 1990s where they won the League Cup, UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Super Cup.
The investment paid off with multiple league victories between 2005 and 2017, even if they cycled through managers like few other clubs would. The pinnacle of their recent achievements, though, is undoubtedly the 2012 Champions League win against Bayern Munich that put them in an exclusive club of teams that also includes Liverpool and Manchester United.
As the first club from the south to join the Football League back in 1893, Arsenal is an established club with plenty of history, and this is just one element of why they are one of the most popular clubs in the UK. They currently enjoy the longest streak of being in the First Division (or Premier League), having been relegated just once in their 134-year history, and this was over 100 years ago in 1913.
Arsenal’s first league victories occurred in the 30s where they won five in seven years, and they were the only team to go toe-to-toe with Manchester United during the latter’s dominance in the 90s and early 2000s, breaking the monopoly with league title wins in 1998, 2002, and 2004. Their last league win is their most impressive, being the only club to go an entire Premier League season unbeaten with a squad known as the Invincibles (although Preston North End did the same in the old First Division over 100 years before that).
Besides league wins, Arsenal is also considered Cup Specialists and hold the record for the most FA Cup wins with 14.
Also inhabiting North London, Tottenham Hotspur have plenty of history in their own right, even if they spent some of their existence overshadowed by the neighbours. Known as Spurs to just about everyone (because saying Tottenham Hotspur every time is a bit of a mouthful), they were the first club in the 20th century to win the league and cup double, claiming both in 1961. Successful FA Cup defences in the next two seasons also sent them to Europe, where they were the first English club to win a UEFA Competition, five years before Manchester United won the European Cup.
Although never truly The Team, Spurs have still enjoyed moderate if not necessarily consistent success during their existence, although recent years have enabled them to cement themselves as a top-six team, emerging as contenders in 2010 that saw them qualify for the Champions League and hear whispers of a title challenge, although this never really came to fruition.
The blue side of Liverpool is home to Everton, who play at Goodison Park and enjoyed their most successful period in the 80s, where they won two league titles, an FA Cup, and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1985. Since then, their only other trophy has been an FA Cup victory in 1995, but that doesn’t stop them from being a popular club in the UK.
This lack of silverware is often attributed to the lack of possible investment from previous owners, and even despite a paltry budget compared to other clubs, especially rivals Liverpool, Everton still held their own in the Premier League, becoming an established team during David Moyes tenure that saw them achieve a top-four finish.
They have not returned to the Champions League since, but have enjoyed European competition over the past decade, although this was without significant success. After several stuttering starts with a variety of managers, they appointed the legendary Carlo Ancelotti in December 2019, who has them fighting for a top-four place once again.
The UK is home to more clubs than just those in the Premier League, though, and it would be cruel (and certainly cause an uproar) to forget clubs north of the border. Going alphabetically, Celtic are one of the two biggest clubs in Scotland, and the first British club to win the European Cup, with the Jock Stein’s Lisbon Lions overcoming Inter Milan in 1967.
Their success on home soil is unprecedented, to say the least. They easily established themselves as a force in the early years of the 20th century, winning six consecutive league titles, and Stein’s leadership helped lead them to nine consecutive titles during the 60s and 70s. In all, they have won the Scottish First Division 51 times, proving their dominance.
Although once perennial figures in Europe, the lack of money in the Scottish leagues means they have been unable to compete with English clubs and big clubs on the continent, and this has seen them drop out of the running over the past two decades.
Remaining in Scotland, Rangers are recognised as the most successful club in Scotland with 54 league titles that could become 55 this season (unless this jinxes it). Rangers share the Old Firm derby with Glasgow neighbours Celtic, which is considered one of the most heated rivalries in world football, and it is often difficult to separate the two when it comes to achievements.
Things changed slightly when Rangers went into administration in 2011 and were sent to the Scottish fourth-tier. Since then, they have rebuilt and show signs of reclaiming their dominance in a league that has been a one-man-show for too long and have also made a return to European competition, reaching the Europa League’s Round of 32 this season.
Newcastle United has spent 88 years in the English top-flight, dropping out of the top division for just three years altogether, and never dropping below England’s second tier. They have won the First Division four times, although not in nearly 100 years, with their last title coming in 1927. Despite this, Newcastle United has always been a popular club due to the size of Newcastle itself, and following the attractive football, they played under Kevin Keegan in the 90s.
Although they pushed Manchester United for the title in the mid-90s (highlighted by Keegan’s famous I will love it outburst), they failed to claim the title and finished the century settling for second-place finishes and runners-up in the FA Cup. They started the new millennium strongly, but poor ownership has seen them struggle, dropping into the second-tier twice over the past two decades.
One of the founding members of the football league and Premier League, Aston Villa are a historically successful club that has won the English First Division seven times, with their last coming in 1981, and are one of five English teams to lift the European Cup, which they won in 1982.
They have spent the second-longest time in the top-flight, with only Everton having been an ever-present club for longer than their 106 seasons, and came following their relegation in the 2016 season, although Villa was soon promoted back to the Premier League by winning the Championship Play-Offs.
Their last trophy came in 1996 when they won the League Cup, and they are often among the top-ten teams for overall attendance figures in England. This season, they have confounded expectations thanks to excellent signings and a solid defence that means they will avoid the last-day panic that saw them stay up by virtue of a goal-line technology error on the last day of the previous season.
Fans of Nottingham Forest will remind you of the two European Cups they won back-to-back in 1979 and 1980, that saw five years of English dominance in Europe (sandwiched in between Liverpool’s first three victories). This occurred under the guidance of the legendary Brian Clough who also won Forest their only First Division title.
The early 90s saw them relegated and then promoted back to the Premier League in its infant years, and finished a surprising third-place in their first season back in the top flight. However, this was as good as it got for the Reds, and the rest of the decade saw them slowly fall down the pecking order, eventually getting relegated, although they returned for one season in 1999.
Since then, Forest has established themselves as a Championship squad, although they nearly made it to the play-offs last season under Sabri Lamouchi. Despite their lack of success compared to other clubs over the past 30 years, they are still one of the most popular clubs in the UK, and even listed among clubs that are historically relevant to English football.
In terms of recent success, Leicester City is undoubtedly the biggest club in the East Midlands, having established themselves as a Premier League team after experiencing a decline that saw them drop to the third tier as recently as 2008. For many outside of the UK, Leicester is most famous for the unbelievable Premier League victory in 2016 that made them part of an elite cabal of teams that also includes Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Blackburn Rovers.
While their title defence was nothing to write home about, no one expected them to replicate the heroics of the season prior. Instead, Leicester has slowly built an impressive squad with the talismanic Jamie Vardy and key players such as James Maddison, Kasper Schmeichel, Wilfred Ndidi, and an emerging Harvey Barnes and James Justin. Under Brendan Rodgers, they’re currently joint-second on points in the Premier League this season.
The way that fans chanted We All Hate Leeds throughout stadiums across England, it is hard to imagine that the Yorkshire club is that popular, but Leeds United has a dedicated following that has been through the high-highs and the low-lows of the club over its existence.
The three-time league champions are one of those historically significant clubs alongside Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa, and they were one of the better teams in England in the early 2000s, reaching the semi-final of the Champions League in 2001 before everything went wrong. Over the next twenty years, Leeds fell down the pyramid before rising back up again and, under Marcelo Bielsa, they finally returned to the Premier League after winning the Championship in 2020.
Founded in 1895 as Thames Ironworks before a rebrand as West Ham United in 1900, The Hammers have a reputation of playing attractive football and is the home of many great English players, including World Cup winners Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, and Martin Peters, the latter two scoring in the 1966 World Cup Final.
They first joined the Football League in 1919 but have never won the league, although they have enjoyed success in domestic and international cups with three FA Cup wins and a European Cup Winners’ Cup victory in 1965.
West Ham is arguably the fourth biggest team in London (although that can depend on where in London you are), and although they have had their problems over the past few years, this season has given them something to smile about, as they currently sit in fourth-place despite pre-season predictions that they would get relegated.
Three-time league champions Wolverhampton Wanderers are founding members of the Football League and one of the most popular clubs in both the West Midlands and the UK as a whole. This could be due to their recent successes. Although they don’t have major trophies to shoes for it, Wolves have impressed in recent years after winning the Championship and returning to the Premier League following relegation (and a further drop to League One) in 2012.
Since then, though, Wolves have become a stylish team, at least in the eyes of football fans looking for a Premier League team to support. Nuno Espirito Santos has built a solid squad that enjoyed a deep Europa League run last season, although they have failed to replicate similar form this season.
Sunderland represents the other side of the Tyne-Wear derby that they share with Newcastle United on the other side of the river. They were founded in 1879 and have won the English First Division six times, making them the sixth most successful team before the division evolved into the Premier League in 1992. Sunderland is also two-time FA Cup winners, last lifting the trophy in 1973.
They play at the Stadium of Light, which is one of the best and most impressive grounds in the country, and perhaps even the world. Historically, they have a reputation for being a very good football team, and this is why their fans are so dedicated. However, recent struggles have seen them fall off dramatically. After suffering relegation from the Premier League in 2017, they suffered a consecutive relegation to League One, and have since failed to return, although they are currently in the Play-Off places.
Alongside Leeds, Sheffield United are one of the biggest clubs in Yorkshire and are significant by being the first-ever winners of the Football League following its formation, although this is their only top-division title victory in their 131-year history. They were also a founding member of the Premier League and scored the first goal of the Premier League era, marking them out as a team who loves to lead from the front. Sheffield United have enjoyed success in domestic cups, winning four FA Cup.
They experienced a sheer fall from grace in the 70s, dropping as low as the Fourth Division, and despite a brief resurgence, financial troubles meant they were out of the top flight for 12 years, returning under Neil Warnock, although they were relegated the following season.
After dropping into League One, Chris Wilder pushed Sheffield United back through the pyramid and brought them back to the Promised Land in 2019 where they confounded expectations and even threatened to qualify for European competition for a time, although this eventually did not happen. Right now, they sit in 20th, and will likely suffer relegation once the season finishes, but this shouldn’t impact their popularity.
Most football fans will associate Derby County with the undesirable honour of achieving the lowest points total in Premier League history, managing just 11 points over the 38 games and registering a single win over Newcastle on September 17th, which is surely a Pub Quiz question for the ages.
Despite such troubles, Derby still commands a dedicated fan base, no more clear than during games against Nottingham Forest for the Brian Clough Trophy. Like their neighbours up the A52, Derby has Old Big Head to thank for their historical reputation, bringing them success in the League in 1972, where they won their first-ever top division trophy two years after gaining promotion. The following year, they reached the semi-finals of the European Cup, losing to Juventus, though there’s certainly no shame in that.
Derby was also founding members of the Football League, and their attendance averages have recently reached a 60-year high, showing that fans of the Rams will still flock to watch them in action as they look to return to the Premier League.
Nobody will be more surprised than fans of West Bromwich Albion that they are considered one of the most popular clubs in the UK, but the numbers don’t lie. Their crowd attendance is ranked at 15 in the country, and this puts them just below West Midlands neighbours Aston Villa and Wolves in terms of popularity.
When looking at a historical context, though, it’s unsurprising. West Brom is a founding member of the Football League, and have spent most of their existence in the top division, even if it may not feel that way to fans of the club, or football fans in general. They are one-time League champions, claiming the title in 1920, and they have appeared in ten FA Cup Finals, emerging victorious in five of them, putting them level with Everton in terms of victories. Their last FA Cup also represented their last major trophy, which came in 1968. Like Sheffield United, West Brom are struggling right now, but as manager Big Sam has never been relegated in his career, there’s always the chance they stay up.
The Beautiful Game
From North to South, the UK is home to a plethora of football clubs known worldwide. Wherever you go, there will always be someone who recognises the crest on your shirt, and this shows the universal appeal of the beautiful game.
Some of these clubs are popular because of historical achievements, whereas others have only recently gained a following thanks to investment and unprecedented success. Once the final whistle goes, though, it hardly matters why they are the most popular football clubs. All that matters is that they have the support of their adoring fans cheering them on from the first kick-off to the last game of the season.
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