Yesterday afternoon at The Cardiff City Stadium, a home defeat and the hands of West Ham United pushed The Artists Formerly Known As The Bluebirds into the relegation places. This, it seems reasonable to suggest, was not part of the plan. This was after all new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first home league match in charge of the club, and furthermore their opponents were one of the most out of sorts teams in the division, with a manager himself under pressure after a defeat at the hands of Manchester City last week so heavy that one might well wonder whether it’s even worth the bother of playing the second leg of their League Cup semi-final.
So, symbolism abounded in South Wales yesterday afternoon, and whils tWest Ham United returned to London cheered by a greatly improved performance by their team, Cardiff City supporters may have found themselves looking mournfully at the dotted line at the bottom of the Premier League table this morning, and they are unlikely to have had their mood lightened over the last few days by the club’s last set of annual accounts, which were released at the end of last week and which revealed that the club’s current fincancial position means that there is a distinct possibility that tougher times could yet be around the corner for the club again, especially if it is unable to hold onto its Premier League place at the end of this season.
The headline figures were frightening, but headlines themselves only ever tell a part – and usually the most sensationalist part – of any story. The club’s total debt now stands at £118m, an obviously unsustainable figure if taken on its own and without any context, but this single, solitary number cannot be of any use without context. Of that eye-watering figure, £66m is owed to owner Vincent Tan. This in itself tells a story in itself. The oft-proclaimed ‘saviour’ of the club – which, if the increasingly dwindling number of people who unconditionally support him are to be believed, was definitely going to end up in administration, on its knees and destitute had it not been for his intervention – seems to have effectively deflected the issue of the club’s historical debts for another day rather than resolving them once and for all. Cardiff City still owes that money. It now just owes it to the owner of the club rather than somebody else. This could hardly be described as a crisis position, but it certainly allows for a different reading of the takeover.
It’s not all bad news that is contained within these figures. Sam Hammam’s Langston was paid £22m – one-off payment of £15m and further non-interest bearing payments of £7m over a seven-year period – to conclusively end their financial involvement with the club, and this seems like a reasonable bit of business, considering that Langston were owed £34m to start with, although the small matter of the life presidency of the club that was given to Hammam – a man blamed by many as being one of the most significant catalysts behind the sequence of events which led to the club being in such a precarious financial position in the first place.
Meanwhile, around £2.5m was paid in June 2013 to clear monies owed to the Cayman Island based Player Finance fund, a Hedge Fund which are administered by the Walkers Group of the Cayman’s Island. Their connection to was is that they held a first charge mortgage set against the real estate, income, debentures and the players registrations owned by Cardiff City Football Club. Again, this was a part of the legacy of the club’s previous maladministration, and if it is now conclusively settled then this is similarly good news for the club.
It is difficult to interpret the other financial figures that have been publicly discussed elsewhere in a similarly positive light. The club saw a reduction in revenue from £20m in 2012 to a little over £17m in 2013 which could be considered a little puzzling when we consider that, playing in the same division and being more successful on the pitch should, if anything, have increased revenue rather than being a period during which it decreased. It is also worth pointing out that these figures cover the first full seaosn since the rebranding of the club from its tradition colours of blue and white to Tan’s preferred colours of red and black. There is little in these figures to suggest that the club benefitted financially during this period from the rebrand. Perhaps this will change when the next set of annual accounts are released in twelve months time. Perhaps, though, it won’t.
The news that the club’s annual wage bill grew from £18.5m in 2012 to most £30m in 2013 hints at what the main catalyst behind promotion into the Premier League in the first place might have been. This rise has been partially explained by the club “incurred significant bonus payments in relation to its promotion to the Premier League” and promotion itself carries an obvious huge net benefit to the club. But it always seemed slightly odd that Vincent Tan was so upset about overall spending at the being above the budget agreed by the much quoted £15m they cost former transfer man Iain Moody his job and was such a significant contributing factor towards the replacement of former manager Malky Mackay shortly afterwards.
Meanwhile, a significant proportion of the losses incurred by the club have about as a result of an increase of £13m in the cost of sales and a £8m rise in administration costs. It is the latter of these two figures that raises eyebrows the most. “Administration costs” is the sort of woolly phrase that could just about mean anything, but what we know for certain is that £8m is four times the amount of money that the club will have made from its television money during the same period from the Football League’s contract. Why, supporters might well ask, did administration costs rise so sharply during this period, and what were they for? They may well be waiting a long time for an answer.
So, are all of Cardiff City’s financial eggs now firmly in the Premier League basket? On the surface, it would certainly seem so, and if there’s one thing that we know for certain it’s that the team’s biggest shortcoming on the pitch this season has been a lack of goals. The team has mustered just fifteen in its twenty-one Premier League matches so far this season – only Crystal Palace, with an even more meagre thirteen, have scored fewer – and only four of these have come since the end of November. The January transfer window is normally the time of year when managers attempt to set this sort of issue straight, but attacking players can be expensive to purchase (especially for a club what is now widely known to have such a drought), and buying attacking players is no guarantee of buying goals.
Can the club afford the £25m transfer kitty that it was widely reported Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was promised as a sweetener to join the club a couple of weeks ago? The flip-side to that question might well be that of whether the club can afford not to. But the stakes – and this was one inevitability of the vast upscaling of the Premier League television contract that came into effect last summer – are certainly high and, while it may be true to say that the club could be in a worse financial position were £66m of its debt not owed to the owner of the club, it would be altogether more healthy if that debt didn’t exist in the first place. Perhaps Tan will do the sensible thing in the event of a further downturn in the club’s fortunes and convert those loans into shares in the club. Until he does so, though, its debt of £118m will follow Cardiff City around like a bad smell until someone opts to do something about it and the questions that spring to mind about the club’s long-term viability are, by their very nature, existential: who might act first, what action might they take, why, and when?
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