Bristol City's woes are likely to be the norm
The news that Bristol City’s debt for the financial year had climbed to an eye popping £14.4 million once again opened the gaping scar that is Football League club finance. Following on from the posting of a similarly agonising figure of £11.45 million a year earlier and accompanied by a desperately poor season on the pitch, the sum has sent shockwaves through the club’s support. With a possible transfer embargo lying in wait for any club exceeding its means by a £5 million margin from 2014, a bubbling problem has now opened up into outright financial crisis.
But perhaps the most salutary lesson to once again be learned is the immense difficulty of running a lower division club and keeping it on a steady keel. Sure, a host of factors can be listed to show why City are in this mess — but few opposing fans can look upon the red and white plight with a sense of real ease. In the early days of this blog, I wrote admiringly of the home grown bunch of players assembled by Gary Johnson and what seemed to be a model concern — but as with Plymouth Argyle and others, it’s less headline profligacy that leads to fiscal woe, more the incremental accumulation of small, maladroit decisions.
Take wages. David James won’t have been on peanuts and nor would those less heralded former Premiershippers Nicky Hunt and Kalifa Cissà©. Brett Pitman reputedly turned down Blackpool and Jon Stead has been fleetingly impressive even if his ‘big name’ status dates back to 7pm showings of The Premiership presented by Des Lynam on ITV and that early flurry of Blackburn goals. The squad’s big, with Danny Wilson (no — not him) sporting the number 40 shirt while Steven Caulker apart, few of the loan signings of recent seasons have worked out (one of the latest, George Elokobi suffered an awful ankle dislocation on his debut).
The Swiss Ramble’s typically masterful analysis of the Avon club’s finances from February 2011 quoted a Transfermarkt study claiming that the squad possessed playing assets totalling £19 million but that seemed like La la Land even at the time and opportunities to cash in were missed, more of which later. At the moment, the squad is a real ragbag with has beens like Jody Morris jostling for space with the once promising likes of Paul Anderson and Martyn Woolford.
But unimpressive as this record is, it’s little worse than any in the division. As recently as the summer of 2011, Neil Kilkenny constituted the only major signing as the club appeared to be battening down the hatches, diverting most of its money towards the goal of moving to the planned Bristol City Stadium.
Which of course has been an epic saga of which Homer would be proud. As detailed in our conversation piece with Bristol City blogger Paul Binning from just over a year ago, an attack of the nimbys has severely hamstrung the club’s efforts to move and while planning permission has been approved, the machinations of Long Ashton Parish Council have attempted to afford the title of ‘village green’ to a mix of brownfield and industrial estates.
Money has hence been haemorrhaged — mighty share sales of £47 and £58 million were raised in the early days, a £15 million stadium loan was acquired, rumoured deals with the Southlands housing development and Sainsburys have gone quiet and benefactor and majority shareholder Steve Lansdown has had to undertake more bail outs than the European Central Bank. With future earnings from a new home estimated to accrue a possible £260 million, the move cannot come quickly enough.
Still, Lansdown has shown remarkable patience thus far and given that the majority of the Robins’ debt is owed to him, it has been characterised as ‘soft’ and not wildly different from the sugar daddy model as displayed elsewhere (the interest payable on loans being much lighter than it would be with more hard-nosed creditors). The farrago is no doubt a major contributing factor to the debt problem — but perhaps doesn’t stand out amid the litany of bad practice viewable across the leagues.
Elsewhere, the Bristolians will point to a myriad of other costs — pay offs to ousted manager Keith Millen and his backroom staff, the compensation offered for recruiting incoming boss Derek McInnes and his assistant Tony Docherty, £250,000 expended on improving infrastructure for the failed World Cup hosting bid and a loan from Barclays which, by the time of the Swiss Ramble piece, had amounted to £559,000.
Not have opportunities been maximised. The fee for Nicky Maynard was undisclosed but one suspects it was well short of the £8 million Blackburn were to pay for Jordan Rhodes a year later, despite that latter worthy having a considerably less impressive record (Maynard finally moved on to Cardiff for two and three quarter million pounds a short while later and the chance for City to sell him to spendy Sven’s Leicester when he was arguably at the peak of his powers was by then a distant memory).
Ashton Gate’s atmospheric but aged surrounds also prevent maximisation of commercial opportunities, kit sponsorship has been with smaller scale companies than their rivals and City are in the same boat as others in the division when it comes to the pathetically tiny TV deal — pathetic in comparison to the Premier league at least, that is.
So it’s not been pretty — but the message is that this isn’t an atypical list of spending or an unusual list of missed open goals. Bristol City may have had the sixth highest net spend in the second tier for the period between 2009 and 2011 but the overall sum of £3.3 million was still small compared to many. What’s clear is that you can’t pay even modest wages to aging stars and injury prone journeymen on gates of 15,000 or so. This case is far from an individual one — all clubs need to wake up to the need for financial sustainability or many will follow this path.