The 2021 Pre-Season State of Play: The Championship
So, the new season is upon us, and it’s time for a quick preview of the three divisions of the EFL (League Two is here, and League One is here, for those of you who missed it). There will be plenty of these previews floating about, so I’ve been focusing on these being a ‘state of play’ series about the divisions in question, with a focus on two clubs in each division which might well be worth keeping an eye on – and not necessarily for the best of reasons – this season.
At least we’re all prepared, this time. Afficionados have been enjoying the madness of the EFL Championship for years now. The 46 game slog which frequently finds strange and interesting new ways of frustrating its competitors long ago completed its metamorphosis into English football’s equivalent to It’s a Knockout, and with the pandemic having rattled the accounts of clubs who were less than stellar in their financial performance before they were denied match revenue for a year and a half, there’s little to suggest that this year will be any less chaotic than others.
There are, of course, exclusions to the division’s impending financial armageddon. The three clubs relegated from the Premier League at the end of last season have a safety net in the form of their parachute payments, while the only club not to get promoted back at the first attempt last season, Bournemouth, join them as the four favourites to get promotion straight back this season.
It used to be that tipping the three relegated sides to go straight back was the easy option for the lazy football journalist, but at this stage the financial benefits are so great that it makes sense to do so. When West Bromwich Albion were relegated from the Premier League at the end of last season, their automatic reaction was to hire the manager and sign the best player from last season’s surprise package in the division, Barnsley. Never forget: capitalism hates competition.
Of course, nothing is set in stone yet and there is plenty of scope for one of more of these clubs to trip over their shoelaces in their rush to get back into the Premier League. And should this happen, there will be absolutely no shortage of opponents desperate to take their place. Having said that, though, the transfer market outside of these four clubs has been extremely quiet indeed. At the time of writing, four clubs haven’t brought in anybody new at all, and most of the signings that have been made have been fairly modest, with free transfers ruling the summer activity.
This is almost certainly a reflection on the chaotic financial state of the Championship. The last season for which such figures are available is 2018/19, but they paint a damning picture of a division that is collectively unable to wean itself off its addiction to trying to solve every problem that any of its clubs face by throwing money around, even if they can’t afford it. For the 2018/19 season, wages were an average of 107% of turnover across the entire division, a figure which in itself tells us as much as we need to know about the extent to which the division is spinning out of financial control.
Wages are just wages. The figure quoted above doesn’t include any other costs of running a football club, and it is beyond stupid – negligent, really – for any club to be spending more than it brings in on those alone. It is true to say that football as an industry is different to other industries in that their staff are quite literally clubs’ biggest assets, but there’s no perspective from which we can consider that spending more money than you bring in on any one aspect of your business can be considered in the slightest bit healthy.
The signs of this dysfunction have been everywhere, and for some considerable time. You don’t have to have a long memory to be able to remember the outcry over EFL rules limited clubs to losing just the £39m over every rolling three year period. Any business in which there is an outcry because regulators are not letting companies lose enough money for their own protection is basically and fundamentally broken. At least the desperation in the eyes of those who consider themselves to be in touching distance of a night at the top table is funny for the rest of us.
The funniest of all at the moment, of course, are Derby County. The desperate position in which the club now finds itself should be a cause for concern across the entire EFL at the moment, and the fact that most impartial observers are unable to get too upset by it all probably has something to do with the way in which the club has carried itself in recent years.
When Mel Morris sold Pride Park to himself and then hired a very expensive lawyer to weasel out of sanctions for his gaming of the system, hubris levels around the club went stratospheric, as though there was a belief that lawyering up had given the club an invisible cloak of invincibility. That the club’s descent into a very personal form of hell began at almost the exact moment this matter went in their favour should really be a salutory lesson about the dangers of believing one’s own hype.
Surviving relegation on the last day of last season certainly seems to have been something of a hollow victory. True enough, the club’s position would have been even worse had they been preparing for a season in League One this summer, but surviving the drop didn’t do much about the transfer embargo that was due to be in place until they fixed their company accounts to correct the unusual way in which they calculated player amortisation, and it was only three weeks ago that the EFL softened it so that they could start this season with something approaching a team.
Despite this, though, the embarrassments have kept on coming. Manager Wayne Rooney was caught in flagrante with a bunch of young women who definitely weren’t his wife by a tabloid newspaper. A suspended three point deduction still hangs over the club. One of their new signings was going to be Ravel Morrison, who we were promised has definitely turned a corner in terms of his behaviour this time, only for this to have apparently fallen through at almost the last moment.
And earlier this week, there was an outcry when out of contract players who had been training with the club were given contracts to sign with the wage section blank, because they needed to be signed in time for their first league match of the season. Less than a week ago, Derby had only nine registered senior players, two of whom were goalkeepers. It’s a mess of unbelievable proportions, and there are few who will predict Derby to come anywhere other than bottom of the table, this season. There’s a lengthy debate to be had over whether it is a help or a hindrance to have Wayne Rooney managing the team at such a time. He remains a manager untried under normal circumstances, but he’ll be able to consider it an achievement, should he keep Derby in the Championship this season.
Derby County are the standout basket cases in the Championship this season, but in truth the actual answer to the question of who will be the other club to watch this is season is most truthfully, “just about any of them”, really. It could be Reading, whose wage bill in 2019 was 194% of their turnover and who remain the other Championship club under a transfer embargo, alongside Derby. It could be Swansea City, whose manager quit in the third week of July and who could only replace him with less than a week to go before the start of the season. It could be Sheffield United, for whom all the parachute payments in the world don’t account for the wretched time of things they had at the bottom of the Premier League, last season.
It could be Barnsley, whose outstanding last season was undermined by the departure of their manager and best player to another Championship club. It could be Birmingham City, who’ve often seemed to be caught in a slow motion stall since The Carson Yeung Fiasco, despite the fact that he quit the club seven and a half years ago. It could be Nottingham Forest, whose owner’s previous hints at being completely the wrong person to be involved in this volatile division, Huddersfield Town, who are still labouring under the hangover brought about by their brief stay in the Premier League, or Bristol City, who won just one of their last thirteen matches of last season. It could be Middlesbrough, who are managed by an elderly crow, or Cardiff City, who are managed by the world’s sexiest Easter Island statue. It could be any of them. The road to League One is littered with the bodies of those who earnestly believed they were too good for the Championship, only to suffer a collective meltdown or to suddenly find their financial incontinence catching up with them.
But it’ll be someone, because it’s always someone.