With Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion having already secured promotion back into the Premier League, the last day of the season in the Championship this weekend might have threatened to be something of a damp squib. At the top of the table, however, there is still one play-off place to be fought for, and anybody that has raised their eyebrows about the recent promotions of Burnley and Hull City into the Premier League from the Championship play-offs may well have more to get excited about if Blackpool, of all people, can beat Bristol City to secure the fourth play-off spot on Sunday afternoon.
The main event of the weekend, however, will come at Hillsborough, where Sheffield Wednesday take on Crystal Palace. If Palace win or the match end in a draw, Wednesday will be relegated. If the home side can win, however, they will stay up and Crystal Palace will drop into the bottom two divisions of the Football League for the first time since 1977. It promises to be quite an occasion. The BBC will be covering the match live and, with tickets on sale for just £10, it is expected that a capacity crowd of almost 40,000 will be there for it. For the two clubs concerned, both of whom have significant financial problems, it is an absolutely critical match.
Crystal Palace had a chance to ensure their survival on Monday evening, but they could only draw at home against West Bromwich Albion. They would be in thirteenth place in the table were it not for the ten point deduction imposed when they entered into administration in January and, without a firm buyer having been found since then, the persistent muttering that this might even be Palace’s final match has endured. The major vulnerability for the club is the separation of club and stadium. Both are in administration independently of each other and the nightmare scenario for the club’s supporters is that Selhurst Park could be sold to developers, leaving them homeless.
The group that is interested in buying the club, CPFC (2010), will be more than aware of the massive financial drop if the club is relegated, and there are no firm guarantees that they will maintain their interest should Palace fall through the trapdoor. The administrators for the stadium, Price Waterhouse Coopers, are believed to wish to reach agreement to keep the club at Selhurst Park, but there are still many hurdles that would need to be cleared in order for this to be completed. The future of the club will remain uncertain no matter what division they start next season, but the prognosis for them would be considerably bleaker if they were to be relegated.
Sheffield Wednesday have been struggling under the weight of a massive debt for years. They are currently believed to be in the region of £25m in debt themselves, and the club has been “set for imminent investment” for some considerable time. They have sailed close to being forced into administration themselves and the prospects of attracting the investment that they so desperately need would be damaged by relegation back into League One. Their problems aren’t as serious as those faced by Crystal Palace, but their future remains far from secure and the club will remain unable to fulfil its potential until this debt is paid down.
Against this background, it is clear that there is more at stake at Hillsborough on Sunday than the mere pride of exemption to the Third Round of the FA Cup and the possibility of sneaking a place in the play-offs for a place in the Premier League next season. It will be tense no matter what, but this tension has hardly been assisted by comments made in the press by the Sheffield Wednesday chairman Lee Strafford this week. Strafford is apparently angry that Palace have entered into administration:
I don’t have sympathy for anyone at Palace other than the fans. There should be a bigger punishment and I think that should be relegation. If you mis-manage a football club to the extent where you end up in massive debt, administration should not be an escape route. We have suffered longer and harder than most clubs because we did not go down the administration route at a time when it may have been easier to do so. You have to feel sorry for the fans. They don’t deserve what has happened there. Administration twice is inexcusable.
On the one hand, Strafford’s comments betray a lack of understanding of Palace’s financial circumstances. Palace did not “go down the administration route” earlier this year in any voluntary sense. They were forced into administration by one of their creditors – the hedge fund Agilo – in January after they became concerned that a winding up petition from HMRC over unpaid tax was due to be served. Secondly, quite who the target or his ire is remains unclear. The first time that the club entered into adminstration was under the ownership of Mark Goldberg in March 1999, and the second time was, of course, on Simon Jordan’s watch earlier this year. To enter into administration is by no means good business practice, but we are talking about insolvency events that were eleven years apart and under completely different ownerships.
On another altogether more practical level, Strafford’s comments may have another – for Sheffield Wednesday – unwanted side-effect. Anybody watching the match between Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion would have been able to see just how dejected the Palace players, who had come within inches of securing their safety, looked at the end of the match. It may have required the services of a motivational coach that the club cannot afford at the moment to provide the service that Lee Strafford has this week. If the Crystal Palace players needed any more motivation for that infinitesimally small extra push over the line, comments like his surely couldn’t have been more finely crafted. If Strafford wanted to comment upon the rights and wrongs of entering into administration, he might have been better advised to leave it until after Sunday’s match.
To this extent, whether Strafford is right or not (and there is certainly a case to be made for saying that football is stuffed with clubs that are guilty of financial doping) is somewhat irrelevant. Indeed, the fact that Palace have fallen from being in a position of challenging for a Premier League play-off place to needing a result on the last day of the season since entering into administration (with all of the upheaval that it invariably carries) and its accompanying ten point deduction would seem to undermine his argument somewhat. And, most ironically of all, had Crystal Palace not entered into administration, Sheffield Wednesday would already have been relegated well before this Sunday. Even these considerations, however, are not really the point. With tension likely to already be high and a large travelling support making the journey up from London, ratcheting up the tension still further is the last thing that anybody needs.