Ferran Soriano Was Right About One Thing

by | Oct 9, 2020

There has been a considerable amount of dunking on the Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano over his comments on Premier League B teams this week – not least on these very pages – and rightly so. If Soriano wanted to fill the stereotype of the amoral Premier League billionaire who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, then using the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to suggest one of the biggest power grabs that English football would ever have seen might be considered a good way to go about it.

Soriano himself is no stranger to controversy. In January 2013, four months after Soriano’s appointment as the CEO of Manchester City, the Barcelona president Sandro Rosell claimed that “Manchester City have attempted to entice a number of staff from the Camp Nou”, but added “there were no fish left.” Rosell alleged that Manchester City had tried, in an “offensive” approach, to sign players “from all levels of Barcelona’s structure,” and that the club had also attempted to poach other staff members. These allegations were not pursued.

In February 2013, Soriano was accused by the FC Barcelona board, led by Rosell, of authorising email surveillance of club employees suspected of “working against” Barca’s then-president Joan Laporta at a cost of £1.7m while he was a Vice President and general manager of the club. In March 2014, a judge cleared Soriano of these allegations. Rosell resigned from the post of Barcelona president in January 2014, one day after a Spanish court opened an investigation into Barca’s €57.1 million signing of Brazilian Neymar, for an alleged “misappropriation of funds”, relating to a money laundering investigation related to buying television rights for past matches of the Brazilian national team. He was acquitted last year.

In September 2014, meanwhile, Soriano was found guilty over bankruptcy of the Spanish airline Spanair – which collapsed in January 2012 after Qatar Airways pulled out of talks to inject cash into it – and fined £8.6 million. In May 2016, the decision was overturned by the appeal court judges who concluded that Spanair’s executives were acting in trying to “save the company,” and that its subsequent bankruptcy was “fortuitous.” There’s been a lot of mud slung at him over the years, but none of it has quite stuck.

None of this, however, is to say that every single thing that Soriano said yesterday was wide of the mark. He also mentioned that the EFL’s club were not sustainable businesses even before the pandemic and, while there are well-run clubs among the 72 members of the EFL, few would disagree with the broad sweep of this part of his argument. The average wage for a Championship player is now just shy of £29,000 per week, and it’s easy enough to point at high player wages in a division in which clubs earn a relatively meagre amount from their television contracts, but this isn’t just a matter of clubs spending too much money on player wages.

It’s also a matter of management, and the trials of Nottingham Forest since the start of this season have been a case in point. Forest were in the play-off positions for nearly the whole season, but missed out by finishing 7th on the final day of the season after being beaten 4-1 at home by Stoke City. Lamouchi had guided Forest to their highest league position since the 2010/11 season, becoming in the process the first Forest manager to complete a full season with the club in almost a decade. Over the course of the summer the club brought in no fewer than thirteen new players, but this season started in a diabolical manner, with four straight defeats in the Championship and elimination from the League Cup at the first hurdle.

Lamouchi went (“finally went” seems a little excessive) at the start of this week, and his replacement is Championship stalwart Chris Hughton, who’s already won promotion from this division with Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion, and who may reasonably considered a decent replacement for a troubled club. But the replacement of one person with another in the Forest dugout of a Saturday afternoon only tells part of the story of the cost of such a replacement. Lamouchi’s contract will have to be paid up for the remainder of the twelve month contract extension that he signed in June, whilst Hughton will have to work with the players that he has, or try to persuade owner Evaneglos Marinakis who part with even more of the club’s money in order to try and rebuild the squad yet again.

It’s financial incontinence on a grand scale, but it would be unfair to single out Forest alone in this respect. We all laugh along with the panic-stricken nature of Championship football, but these decisions have financial costs. Overspending on wages in endemic to such a point that clubs are now collectively spending more than their incomes on wages alone, and the reaction of said clubs to the apparently perpetual wage inflation that haunts the division has hardly been encouraging.

The EFL introduced Financial Fair Play in order to try and curb clubs’ tendency to overspending, limiting the losses they could make to £13m per year. Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday sold their grounds to their owners to cover these losses in the accounts. Derby got away with an EFL investigation into it, but Sheffield Wednesday didn’t and they are one of the two clubs still below Nottingham Forest in the league table, following a hefty points deduction awarded towards the end of last season, which many felt should have been applied last season. The Championship was being described as “a bubble waiting to burst” last December, and we can be confident in saying that things won’t have improved at all since then.

The other side below Forest in the current Championship table are Wycombe Wanderers, which tells another story of the dysfunctionality of this division. During the 2018/19 season, Aston Villa paid the highest wages in the Championship, a total of £95.8m and an average of £44,150 per player per week. The lowest was Rotherham United, with a total wage spend of £78.8m and an average wage of £3,643 per player per week. To put it another way, the highest wage bill in the division is twelve times the lowest. Parachute payments, which are meant to cushion the blow of falling from the Premier League, only seem to be further fuelling overspending on wages.

And, of course, the biggest problem is that Aston Villa will have considered that outlay a success because they ended up getting back into the Premier League. For so long as this is the only prism through which success in the Championship is defined, the desperation will continue to grow. Throwing good money after bad on paying up the contracts of coaches will continue. Desperately throwing money at wages in the pursuit of short-term fixes to what are often long-term institutional problems will continue. I noted on these pages before that the EFL is “a regulator that doesn’t want to regulate, overseeing 72 clubs that don’t want to be regulated,” and nowhere is this truer than in the Championship, where clubs actively seek to circumvent any attempts to rein in their worst financial excesses and there seems to be widespread indifference towards anything but getting their snouts in the Premier League trough for a year or two.

So on that issue alone, Ferran Soriano is correct. If the EFL Championship is to be saved, its clubs should prove that they have mended their ways and embrace sustainability as considerably more than using it as some sort of aspirational buzzword, to be addressed just as soon as the ink has dried on the contract of that new £30,000 a week defender. This particular cycle of madness isn’t funny any more.