No-One Cares About Smaller Clubs Any More

by | Feb 7, 2020

It’s been mis-remembered and mis-attributed over the years, but it rings such a bell with so many that, in many respects, it doesn’t even matter whether it is any more. It is said that, when the former Tottenham Hotspur manager Keith Burkinshaw left White Hart Lane for the last time after leaving the club in the summer of 1984, a gaggle of journalists was waiting for him in the car park.

One of the journalists, Ken Jones of the Daily Mirror, gestured back towards the stadium behind them. “There used to be a football club over there”, he said to Burkinshaw, who nodded in agreement and got into his car. A year earlier Spurs had become a publicly owned company and were listed on the stock exchange, in the process becoming the first football club to do so. Burkinshaw was right. Even by this time, football had become its evolution into  being a vehicle to make money, and making more money became critical when a wage inflation that has not slowed yet started in the mid-1990s. 

Some turns of phrase have a way of lodging themselves into your head, and it can be difficult, these days, not to paraphrase Burkinshaw when considering the state of the game in this country as it stands today in an overall sense. The destination of the Premier League trophy come the end of this season was all but decided by the end of the Christmas rush, while the owners of Europe’s elite clubs continue to edge their way towards their ultimate endgame – an as close to a closed shop European Super League, with enough of a gulf in resources that they can continue to dominate their domestic leagues as well.

This, of course, is what trickledown economics really looks like. The benefits go to the wealthiest, while the obvious knock-on effect of this, an unsustainable level of wage inflation, percolates down through the entire rest of the domestic game, and at the first fault line at which the gap between those who have and those who have not is clear, it can sometimes feel as though it has all led to something approaching a collective nervous breakdown.

The Football League Championship, we are now being told, is practically in a state of civil war, with clubs turning on each other and the governing bodies as they scramble for whatever breadcrumbs they can that have fallen from the gilded table that sits above them. There are several strands to all this flapping, some creations of the Premier League and its largesse, others a result of the EFL’s uniquely crack-handed way of dealing with its own matters. At the top of the current list of gripes are spending regulations brought in four years ago to try the worst impulses towards overspending that clubs in the second tier seem to suffer from, through introducing Profit & Sustainability rules.

Clubs are now limited to financial losses of £13m per season, or £39m over three years, with the threat of heavy penalties, should they fail to adhere to them. Last season, Birmingham City became the club to reap this particular whirlwind, when they were docked nine points for racking up losses of £48.8m between 2015 and 2018. Last month, the club was charged with breaching these rules again, and may well find themselves on the receiving end of another, this time around.

Rather than trying to rein themselves in, some clubs have instead turned to increasingly creative accountancy in order to circumvent these regulations. In the summer of 2018, Sheffield Wednesday sold Hillsborough for around £60m to owner Dejphon Chansiri in order to stay within the confines of Profitability and Sustainability guidelines. The sale of the ground delivered the club a “profit” of £38m, helping Wednesday record a pre-tax profit of £2.5m for the 2017/18 season. Without the sale of the ground, Wednesday would have posted a pre-tax loss of £35.4m, and would have fallen foul of the EFL’s rules.

Wednesday, somewhat predictably, claim to have done nothing wrong, and have responded in a bullish manner, claiming that the charges brought against the club are “unlawful” and that they intend to bring a claim against the EFL in order to “obtain compensation for its conduct.” The same goes for Derby County, who reported a pre-tax profit of £14.6m after selling their Pride Park stadium to owner Mel Morris for £80m. It was the first time in ten years that the club had recorded a profit, but this good news was covered in asterisks, not least in the fact that those figures still meant that for every £100 the club generated in turnover, they spent almost £137 on wages.

The inevitable upshot of this is that calls for a “Premier League 2” have begun again in earnest, because professional football’s answer to inequality is never to reduce it, rather to move the position of the financial drawbridge so that those on doing the caterwauling are on the right side of the financial gulf rather than being on the wrong side. Self, self, self. Same as it ever was.

And these clubs have useful idiots in the media, too. The Guardian, a newspaper which one might ordinarily expect to support reducing inequality, published this absolute, utter garbage last night from Louise Taylor, a football writer whose attempts to ‘think outside the box’ should probably be put in a lead-lined box and sunk to the foot of the Atlantic ocean.

Taylor’s word-vomit last night was certainly not for the weak-stomached. After two paragraphs which would be shoo-ins for ‘Pseud’s Corner: The Book’, she foresaw that “a rebranded Championship establish itself on an infinitely bigger stage than its current, largely parochial platform” (without offering any substantiation for this accusation of parochialism), and claiming that “the Championship has been under-reported by a national media in thrall to the top flight” (which is true, but overlooks the fact that her employers are as bad as every other news outlet in this regard.)

Elsewhere, she asks with regard to Middlesbrough, “Who knows what will happen when the maverick new signing Ravel Morrison gets going in the creative department?”, and boldly stating that, “Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, Derby and – if they escape League One – Sunderland possess big enough fan bases and sufficiently illustrious histories to provide immense collective pulling power.” Louise Taylor is, because of course she is, a Sunderland supporter.

It’s difficult to see how Taylor’s fever dream could play out in practical terms. It may well be true that an expanded Premier League would bring in even more television money than it does at the moment, but its proponents never seem able to articulate what will change, most likely because the idea of the Premier League rolling back its entire raison d’etre. The top twenty clubs split entirely so that it wouldn’t have to money with the lower orders any more.

Premier League clubs already receive handsome parachute payments in the event that they are relegated which dwarf those raised by other Championship clubs from the EFL’s television contract alone. Why, exactly, would they want to share this, or any proportion of this, with a second tranche of twenty clubs? And do they seriously think that any increase in the value of the Premier League’s contracts as a result of it would cover twenty new clubs with no loss to the top twenty?

It is notable that such a conversation should be held now, because were all-out war to break out within the Championship, it would feed into a broader narrative concerning how no-one cares for smaller clubs any more. We’ve witnessed it over the last couple of weeks with a still-ongoing debate over what to do with FA Cup replays which has prioritised some mild inconvenience for a handful of Premier Leagues over the well-being of just about every other club that takes part in the competition.

Never mind that they already play eight fewer league matches per season than the seventy-two clubs below them. Never mind that you never hear complaints about fixture congestion during the convoluted Champions League group and knockout stages, or when clubs are touring other continents playing lucrative friendly matches just days before the start of their league seasons. In such an environment, how draining matches can be for players often seems to come down to how much money a club can make from them.

No-one seems to have noticed that tinkering around the edges with the dates and times of FA Cup matches and replays is the equivalent to pressing your mouth to that of a corpse in the hope that CPR might bring it back to life. The FA Cup’s “importance” has been overstated for decades, but its current incarnation is something that no-one seems to want. The bigger and medium-sized clubs don’t like it because it gets in the way of their priority of finishing in thirteenth place in the table in perpetuity/ spending more money than they could ever earn on finishing just outside the play-offs yet again.

Meanwhile, those involved with smaller clubs are starting to get more than a little sick as though they’re an imposition by considerably better off clubs when they already live on the breadline as a result of football’s apparently hard-wired addiction to greed. How, say, is a Bury supporter supposed to feel when clubs who routinely spend multiples of the amount that killed their club on one player when they start complaining about their poor, over-worked players? The FA Cup either needs an overhaul on a scale that the FA is never going to carry out, or it needs to be humanely put to sleep. The latter is obviously not desirable for smaller clubs, but the annual whinge-a-thon that the Cup has become can’t carry on indefinitely, and the unpalatable truth is that no-one should be forcing clubs to enter it. 

But then, in the modern football environment, who cares about the smaller clubs anyway? Not other clubs, they just want more themselves to blow on distended wage budgets. Not the fans of other clubs, who have become little more than propaganda-dispersal messengers for the whims of their owners after decades of distilling what it means to be a “fan” (there’s a reason why that word gets so little space on these pages) down to the most blinkered vision of what this might mean possible. For all of the above, the only thing that matters is what they can get out of it all.

Smaller clubs certainly can’t rely on protection from the governing bodies of the game, who have systematically stripped away the protections that smaller clubs had for at least the last three and a half decades, either. Concession after concession has been made to the bigger clubs through changes to governance rules and the scheduling of both league and cup competitions, and even in youth player development through the EPPP plan, all having come about about from the misguided belief that to do so would somehow eventually satiate the cash-lust of clubs mixed with the occasional implied threat thrown in for good measure. The very fact that we are where we are today should tell you as much as you need to know about how successful that policy has been. 

It feels as though we are due another convulsion, and it’s doubtful that the product of this will be particularly pretty. There’s anger everywhere at the moment, and in football it feels as though an increasingly shrinking number of people are even enjoying the game that  much any more, at times. More than anything else, though, it’s increasingly clear that there is no solidarity between clubs any more. The seeds first sewn when the Premier League took more than a quarter of a century to come to fruition, but they got there in the end. There is no space for the poor at football’s table of the future. Everybody is making that seem blindingly clear.