Deep down in the bottom of our hearts, we probably all know that it can’t be that good again next time around. The end of last season across all three divisions of the Football League was a cause for elation for some and despair for others , but there was one simple fact upon all could agree when the dust finally settled: the three divisions of the Football League managed something quite extraordinary at the end of last season to the extent that not even the play-off matches, those long-standing bastions of nerve-shredding tension, could live up to the last day of the regular season. In the Championship, Watford and Hull City played out two remarkable matches against Leeds United and Cardiff City respectively, which ended in Hull edging out Gianfranco Zola’s Watford team by the thinnest of margins. In League One, a last day of the season shoot-out ended with Brentford missing a last minute penalty kick and Doncaster Rovers taking the ball straight to the other end of the pitch and scoring to get promoted themselves. And at the bottom of League Two a desperate battle to avoid the drop which took in seven or eight clubs with just a few matches of the season to play ended with Aldershot Town and Barnet sliding back into non-league football.
Perhaps it was merely chance, although some may choose to consider the question of whether Salary Cap Management Protocols – wage caps, to you and I – in League One and Two as well as a break-even model based on UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations in the Championship might have had their part to play in it all. No matter what the reason was, though, it was a remarkable way for the Football League, the world’s oldest football league, to enter the summer that has come to mark its 125th anniversary, a solid reminder when the wealth that the game generates continues to flow disproportionately in the favour of the biggest clubs, that their league is still relevant. For many, the Premier League may be where the biggest names are all congregated, but the Football League is where the drama and the tension is, and for as long as professional football remains a sport, that drama and tension carries a value that money simply cannot buy. It is, perhaps, this more than anything else that makes it so difficult to repeat. Fans of the Football League may never have it as good again. It is certainly difficult to remember such excitement having come to pass on such a wide scale before, certainly in recent years.
If SCMP did have anything to do with it all, then there’s more to follow next season. At this summer’s Football League AGM in Cyprus, clubs voted to reduce the percentage of annual turnover that League One clubs could spend on players from 60% to 55%, whilst the clubs of League Two have had their thresholds reduced to 60% next season, from 65% last time around. The rules in the Championship are slightly more different – and slightly more convoluted – but can be summarised as follows: next season, Championship clubs are allowed losses of up to £8m. Of that, £3m allowed is operating losses and £5m in equity, not including loans. Those figures must then decrease to £6m in 2014/15 and £5m in the season after that, with clubs being required to submit their annual accounts from the previous season or financial year on the first of December of each year. There will be no sanctions for a failure to comply next season in terms of points deductions – that doesn’t start until the 2014/15 season – but clubs have to start preparing for this now if they haven’t already, and on top of this a ‘Fair Play Tax’ which will be pushed upon those who break the rules, with excesses of between £1 and £100,000 incurring with a charge of 1% of the excess and any excess over £10m “earning”, for the want of a better phrase, a 100% charge. It’s not all bad news for the clubs, though – there will be a potential reward for clubs that do live within their means. All proceeds from the ‘Fair Play Tax’ will be divided amongst those clubs which have complied with the regulations for the corresponding season. What’s that, you say? Clear as mud, you say? Well, of course, but these are football finances that we’re talking about, here, but the long, tall and short of it all is that clubs have to act within their financial means in the very near future, or face the consequences of not doing so.
As ever, though, the financial travails of the clubs of the Football League are not about greater equality and competitiveness between its member clubs alone. The parachute payments paid out by the Premier League are due to grow by almost 44% with its expansive new television deal, and the Football League’s Greg Clarke has proposed two ways in which the financial gap between those that receive it and the other clubs of the Championship might be eased. The first was that relegated Premier League clubs would no longer receive their £2m a year share of the Football League’s own relatively meagre television deal, and that this money would instead be redistributed amongst the other clubs in the Championship. The second was a proposed salary cap, which would limit spending on wages to £16m for relegated clubs in the first year before reducing to £10m for the 2014/15 season, before dropping again to £8m for the 2015/16 season. A majority of its member clubs voted in favour of a rule change which would have passed these two proposals, but the Premier League’s threat to withdraw solidarity payments meant that these were subsequently set to one side.
Why this is such a big issue for the Football League isn’t difficult to see. Clubs relegated from the Premier League will receive £23m in the first year after relegation (a £7m increase on the current amounts paid), £18m in the second year after relegation (a £5m increase) and £9m in the third and fourth. By way of comparison, clubs in the Championship who do not receive parachute payments currently get just £2.3m per season in subsidy money from the Premier League’s television contract, whilst clubs in League One and League Two receive just £325,000 and £250,000 respectively. We can only speculate over what the Premier League’s motives for seeking to create a state of affairs that will result in such inequality in the Championship might be, but for all of our talk of our enjoyment of these competitive leagues, if reality is to bite back this season, relegated clubs being able to just buy their way back to from whence they came is a definite possibility. Having said that, however, some clubs relegated from the Premier League in recent years have frequently been so badly run as to offer little challenge once back in the Championship. Blackburn Rovers struggled for most of last season before avoiding the drop, but Wolverhampton Wanderers were less lucky and begin next season in League One, but still receiving parachute payments. This money didn’t automatically guarantee any of the clubs relegated from the Premier League the season before last a swift return, and it could yet not do so this time around, either.
As ever, the financial position of several Football League clubs offers cause for concern. Coventry City are the current poster boys for directorial chicanery and financial basketcasery, but in spite of the best efforts of the authorities it would be a great surprise if no other clubs flirted with insolvency at the very least over the course of the next eleven months. This is a mere reality of life for many clubs in the Football League, who live a hand to mouth existence on the tightest of margins in an environment, in which the smallest of slips can have the most severe of ramifications. Yet for a while of this, however, there is hope. Bradford City ended more than a decade’s worth of torpitude by becoming the first club from the fourth tier to reach a Wembley cup final last season, and followed that up by getting promoted. Portsmouth ended several seasons of hell with their ground reunited with the club and under the ownership of their supporters. And for the first time in more than three decades the FA Cup holders will start the following season in the second tier, which might not be much of a consolation for Wigan Athletic supporters still feeling the sting of relegation from the Premier League at the end of last season, but may at least offer hope that ‘this year could be our year’ to the followers of other clubs. And if we can’t fill ourselves with hope at this time of the year… when can we?
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