I’d been meaning to get onto this subject all week but, as some of you may had noticed, I have been rather occupied by something else. I’m probably going to give it a rest for a few days (though I’m not counting out some sort of “slight return” in a few days or so – I’m firmly of the conviction that this story will prove to be a gift that keeps on giving). Perhaps I should have a “Question Of The Day For The Administrators Of My Football Club” at the bottom of each post or something. Now, there are European Championship qualifiers this weekend (and, yes, the conspiracy theories about Israel colluding with Russia to keep England out have already started, all of which overlooks the simple fact that even if Russia fail to win on Saturday, England are plenty capable of losing to Croatia in their final match), but I’d like, if I may, to refer you back to one of my favourite questions of the season so far: Are Derby County 2007/2008 the worst team in the history of top division football in England?
At the time of writing, they still have just that single, solitary win against Newcastle United to their credit, and the debit column is continuing to rise. 6-0 against Liverpool, 5-0 against Arsenal, 4-0 against Spurs and now, worst of all, a 5-0 home defeat by West Ham United. This is really shocking stuff, and demonstrates just how wide the gap is between them and the rest. West Ham are, after all, very much a run of the mill Premier League club at the moment. Really, they’re nothing special. My point, I guess, is this: the teams that go up through the play-offs now seem to have changed their tack nowadays, and it could prove to be to the detriment of the Championship, in the long run. Since the Premier League broke away from the pack, promotion has become the be all and end all for clubs, and the play-offs have been successful in extending interest in the Football League until the end of the season to the extent you could make a powerful argument for saying that the Championship play-off final has replaced the FA Cup Final as the season’s closing statement. One of the little traditions that has sprung up surrounding this fixture is the “How Much Will They Say This Fixture Is Worth” game. A mere decade ago, it was commonly referred to as “The £10m Match” (referring to the amount of money to be picked up in Sky Sports money the following season) but over the last few seasons, as Premier League financing has become more and more convoluted, this figure has grown massively and become more and more haphazardly. From memory, I think that last year’s winner of the “How Much Will They Say This Fixture Is Worth” game was ITV’s Peter Drury, who came up with the extremely exact-sounding figure of £61m. My guess is that, like the rest of us, he plucked the figure from thin air.
As time has gone on, though something strange has happened. There have been examples of clubs going up and successfully establishing themselves in the Premier League. It wasn’t so long ago that the likes of Bolton and Portsmouth were Championship stalwarts and no more. However, as the amount of money has gone up, the clubs have started to invest less on players in the hope of staying there once they’d got there. In 2003, Wolves never received the “war chest” that their long-suffering supporters had been promised was sitting in reserve for the best part of a decade and went down accordingly. Over the last couple of years, though, the play-off winners haven’t even tried. Neither Watford last year nor Derby County this year have spent anything significant on their squads and have suffered accordingly. If I was a Derby supporter now, I’d be wishing the days away before getting back into the Championship, away from the hype and towards a few games that my team actually had a chance of winning. So, where’s this money going, then? I mean, most of the players will have had clauses in their contracts triggering salary increases if they went up. They brought in a couple of new players that will cost a bit of money, but hardly £50m-£60m worth. When they go back down, with the £15m parachute payment they get plus all the money they’ve not been spending, they should absolutely piss the Championship the following season.
I’ve heard it mentioned a couple of times recently that it is time to pull up the moat that is the Championship play-offs – that the play-off winners don’t deserve their place in the Premier League. This is the danger in clubs like Derby and Watford being so frugal. The Premier League would be quite happy to lose a couple of its smaller clubs if it meant a thicker spread of the TV money for the rest. The Championship play-offs, however, belong to the Football League and are their biggest money-spinner. They wouldn’t give them up lightly. I’m all in favour of clubs living within their means and spending their money wisely. The flip side to that particular coin can be seen at such places as Leeds United and Bradford City. Championship clubs looking to build themselves a little nest egg from a season in the Premier League should be wary, though. Premier League clubs wouldn’t need much of an excuse to make it two up two down or trim the amount of money given to them should they get there.