A curious question, but one that is worth answering. This week has seen reports that the financial damp rot that seems to have infected football is now spreading up the chain. Non-league clubs are the most at prone to financial ruin for the simple reason that not many people are that interested in what happens to them on a day-to-day basis, but higher up the ladder there are signs that clubs are starting to feel the pinch this may be reaching as high now as the Championship, with stories now being reported about the possibility of difficult times at two clubs that should surely be able to hold their own financially: Crystal Palace and Watford.
At Crystal Palace, the players haven’t been paid and this story is being glossed over as some sort of minor issue of cashflow. Palace, however, have had brushes with financial difficulty before. In 2000, Simon Jordan arrived at the club with last minute buyout to rescue the club from having to enter into administration. Since then they have, some would argue, under-performed, only having managed one season in the Premier League in the last decade, and there have been difficulties off the pitch too. It seemed possible until last summer that they could be forced to leave Selhurst Park before a new lease was finally signed and the club have a good start to the season in the Championship, but paying the wages would seem to signify a major problem at the club.
No matter what other bills aren’t paid and no matter what lengths have to be gone to in order for this to happen, the players will always be paid. There is a good reason for this. Unless they sign a deferral agreement, players theoretically become free agents if they are paid just fourteen days late, although more commonly two months would be the accepted time span for players to up sticks and go elsewhere. The fourteen day period would explain why Neil Warnock was so keen to point out that the players will be paid no more than ten days late. Palace have had a decent enough season so far. They are, at the time of writing, in eleventh place in the table but are just two points off a play-off spot. It would be nothing less than a calamity for the club if the squad started to break up for financial reasons.
With the January transfer window just a few weeks away, the temptation might be to offload some players, but this would be not much more than sticking their finger in the dam of their debts and hoping for the best. With other clubs fully aware of their financial predicament, the value of their players would be likely to drop and they would end up disrupting a squad that has half a chance of making the Premier League. Simon Jordan has had Crystal Palace up for sale for some time, but so far there have been no takers. David Sullivan’s name has been linked with them, but is the asking price too high, or is this simply the wrong time to be trying to sell a loss-making football club? Ultimately, it feels as if Crystal Palace have become over-reliant on Simon Jordan, and if his money has run out with no buyer in sight, then they may end up with long term problems as well as the short term ones that they are currently experiencing.
The team that they beat 3-0 last weekend, Watford, find themselves in a similarly intractible situation. Manager Malky McKay was widely expected to face an uphill struggle to keep his side in the Championship this season, but they currently sit in ninth place in the table. Off the pitch, however, the club seems to be sliding into trouble with the amounts of money being mentioned being utterly unsustainable for a club of their current status. They were loaned £1m by chairman Jimmy Russo last Friday, but the club has already announced that unless they get another large injection of cash by the 22nd of December, their holding company, Watford Leisure, may have to consider suspending trading on the Alternative Investment Market unless they can find a further £5.5m.
The club has made noises about seeking “outside investment”, but who is going to invest millions of pounds in Watford Football Club, with the likelihood of making anything like a return being next to zero? It is the figure of £5.5m that is the most troubling aspect of the Watford situation. Is this brinkmanship on the part Russo (and his brother), or is the situation there as desperate as it seems on the surface. Ultimately, suspension of trading in Watford Leisure would be highy likely to force the club into administration, and this would obviously cause the club major difficulties (they own Vicarage Road, for example) both on and off the pitch.
Set against the difficulties at Crystal Palace and Watford, the £70m spent on players agents by Premier League clubs over the last twelve months or so is thrown into pretty sharp focus. This is such an astronomical amount of money to spend on, well, whatever it is that agents do that could conceivably be judged as having any benefit to anyone other than the players concerned or the agents themselves, that it requires a degree of scale to put it into perspective. Kings Lynn Football Club’s HMRC debt (although it is worth pointing out that they have more debts than just this) is £65,000, and it might send them to the wall. At a higher end of the spending scale, Dartford Football Club’s state of the art Princes Park stadium cost £7m to build, and includes an all-weather training pitch, bars and a banquet suite. That’s one-tenth of what Premier League football clubs spent on agents… last year.
It shouldn’t even need to be said that football clubs of the size of Crystal Palace or Watford don’t have to be financially unviable. What we learn from the current predicaments of both clubs is that there is no one size fits all cause for the difficulties of clubs of this size, and there isn’t really a one-size fits all solution for it, either. Having said that, however, living within ones means is a good start – it just so happens that, in the case of these two particular clubs, the specifics relating to their situations a mixture of years of slight neglect and something approaching mismanagement by osmosis. And meanwhile, the Premier League carries on frittering money away on agents. Sometimes it feels as if we living in the last days of Rome.