If there is one particular role within football that is analysed more than any other, it is that of the manager. So much of the culture of the modern game is wrapped up in the cult of the football manager that it would be easy to reach the conclusion that their value is over-stated, but when they get things right, they can set a club that may have been heading towards choppy waters towards, perhaps, a brighter future. One of the more understated success stories of the last couple of years or so has been the appointment of Owen Coyle by Bolton Wanderers. Coyle’s appointment wasn’t without a degree of controversy and the nature of the way in which he was poached from Burnley left a sour taste in the mouth for many. Bolton Wanderers supporters, however, may wish to reflect instead upon the extent to which Coyle has been a success on the pitch and how this has reflected upon the club’s well-being in a more general sense.
It wasn’t so long ago that we could have considered Bolton Wanderers to be a potential financial basketcase waiting to happen, but now, while they still have considerable work to do in order to even their keel, their future looks a little rosier than it has done for some time. Bolton’s decade in the Premier League has been played out against a background of sizeable financial losses and the club has in recent times seemed trapped by a particularly ominous looking pincer movement of increasing costs and low cashflow from commercial revenues. Neither is it unreasonable to state that Bolton’s continuing solvency is too dependent upon Sky Television money – seventy-two per cent of their annual turn-over comes from television money – and, while this has increased in recent years with new television contracts (in particular a vastly plumpened new television deal), increasing costs have meant that the club has continued to mire itself in greater and greater debt.
The last released set of company accounts showed the club to be in debt to the tune of £93m. This could be a potentially catastrophic amount of money, but the good news for supporters of the club is that the overwhelming majority is owed to the club’s owner, Eddie Davies. The downside of this state of affairs is that there is interest payable against it to the tune of around £5m per year. The upside, however, is that is that Davies is still at the club after almost a decade and has showed no sign of going anywhere. On top of this, the club’s wages to turnover ratio is seventy-four per cent, which is not the highest ratio in the Premier League, but it is unsustainably high and the club has given plenty of indication in the past of being aware of this. The upshot of all of this is that cost-cutting remains very much on the agenda at The Reebok Stadium (and this is reflected in the club’s limited – so far – dealings in the transfer market this summer), although the club’s financial position is probably a little stronger now than it was a year or two ago.
Where, though, does Coyle fit into this equation? The simple answer to this question is that improvement on the pitch has helped Bolton in steadying their finances. Their gate and match-day income for last season was amongst the lowest in the division. As such, Bolton are one of the Premier League clubs for which prize money at the end of the season is important, and last season’s fourteenth place finish saw them make a significantly increased amount of revenue from this source. Set against low cashflow from commercial operations and match-day revenue, it is easy to see how Coyle’s achievement in getting the club to the lower end of mid-table has had a literal value to the club as well as the arguably more tangenital value of not having the supporters needing to worry about the prospect of a relegation dog-fight come the spring.
The club has managed to hold onto Coyle so far (Aston Villa were, reportedly, briefly interested in him earlier this summer), and their time in the transfer market since the end of last season has been quiet, so far. The sale of Matt Taylor to West Ham United seems like a reasonable bit of business. Signed for £3.5m from Portsmouth in 2008, Taylor had just one year left on his contract, but Bolton still managed to prize £2.2m from West Ham United for his services. Elsewhere, the sale of goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi to Wigan Athletic for £4m looks like an astute piece of business, when we consider that Al-Habsi was on loan at Wigan last season anyway. The loss of Jlloyd Samuel, Joey O’Brien, Johan Elmander and Tamir Cohen at the end of their contracts is, arguably, a loss of sorts, but Bolton have admitted previously that their squad is too big and the loss of these names from the wage bill may well be considered a necessary rationalisation ahead of the new season. On the way in, the club is understood to be interested in Barcelona’s Jeffrén and Nigel Reo-Coker, but no formal announcements regarding their futures have, at the time of writing, been announced.
The other aspect of a revival in the fortunes of Bolton Wanderers’ fortunes that has been seen since the appointment of Owen Coyle has been to the team’s reputation on the pitch. Under the managerships of Sam Allardyce and Gary Megson, Bolton became synonymous with a style of play that could be described as at best reductionist, and at worst downright cynical. Under Coyle, however, the actual talents of several of the players have been allowed to blossom and Bolton won considerable critical acclaim for the manner in which they played their football last season. This in itself has no great financial value to the club (there are probably people who now attend The Reebok Stadium but wouldn’t while Allardyce or Megson were in charge, but it seems highly unlikely that there would be enough of them to make a huge difference, financially speaking), but it did add to an air of positivity around club for much of last season. Belts still have to be tightened, though, and Bolton supporters will probably already be aware that it is unlikely that their club will go crazy in the transfer market between now and the start of the new season, but they may at least just be looking forward to the kick-off with cautious optimism this year.
The importance of a season without getting into trouble in the league should be obvious to anyone that has looked at the club’s financial position. Such a heavy dependence on television money means that the club may have a considerable problem if relegated. Although Premier League parachute payments have increased dramatically (clubs now receive £48m over four years if relegated), the difference between these parachute payments and the money that the Sky Premier League contracts bring in would still be a massive loss to a club for whom seventy-two per cent of all revenue comes from the television contracts that come with being in the Premier League.
Against the background of this sort of potential loss, the club’s end of season slump last season – five consecutive defeats in the league and that FA Cup semi-final thrashing at the hands of Stoke City – starts to look like a cause for some concern for the new season. Quite asides from anything else, four of those five lost matches at the end of last season were, in the form of matches against Blackpool, Sunderland, Blackburn Rovers and Fulham could have been described as “winnable”, and twelve points from those matches would have lifted the cub to seventh place in the table, which would have been worth an extra £5m or so in Premier League prize money, enough to cover the interest on their current debts to Eddie Davies. There are very few literal “nothing” matches in the Premier League these days.
So, Bolton’s start to the new season may well prove critical. The confidence that drained away from the team towards the end of last season needs to be restored as quickly as possible, as relegation from the Premier League may well turn out to be more than just a headache for the club. One senses, though, that Owen Coyle remains the right man for this job. Bolton remain, however, in a tricky position, literally as well as metaphorically. With Manchester City and Manchester United just a few miles away and dozens of other professional football clubs within easy driving distance of their ground, maintaining Premier League status is likely to always be an uphill battle for a club the size of Bolton Wanderers, and a quick look at the recent history of their financial position indicates that this is a club that may not have been particularly well-equipped for relegation, should that ever come to pass. There are, however, tentative signs of a change in the right direction off the pitch. On it, meanwhile, Bolton should, with a good start, be good enough to at the very least match their position from last season, whilst, even without a good start, they still look too strong to go down.
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