Conversations on… how promoted Championship clubs can survive in the Premier League

Posted by on Sep 21, 2012 in Conversations with | 2 Comments
Conversations on… how promoted Championship clubs can survive in the Premier League

Tomorrow, last season’s Championship winners Reading travel to West Bromwich Albion, who are enjoying their third consecutive Premier League season. Biscuitman Lanterne Rouge asks Throstle Frank Heaven what other promoted clubs can learn from Albion’s widely praised model.

LR: On Sunday, I sat through one of the most one sided matches I have attended for some time as Spurs cantered to victory over Reading.

It left me wallowing in existential angst as to the point of being in the Premier League and Southampton fans will no doubt be feeling the same way after their heavy spending has resulted in the collection of a round zero points so far this season.

West Bromwich Albion are often cited as a model of how to gain a foothold in the Premier League with the spring engendered by a couple of years of being a yo yo club leading to more solid foundations. Is this fair? Or does the previously praised example of Charlton advise caution?

FH: I am very cautious about saying Albion are the ‘model’ to follow, though clearly, at present, things are working out well.

The experience of the yo-yo years gave us precisely that — experience — and there are now players, coaches, directors and so on at the club who are more savvy.

Our model is very much about the long-term: we have invested heavily in infrastructure (EPPP status should come this season, though we didn’t have a training ground 10 years ago); introduced the football director system which tries to ensure knowledge stays at the club even if a key person like the manager leaves; and introduced a regime of strict fiscal discipline (apologies for sounding like George Osborne).

That latter point is partly why we have been able to bounce back from relegation three times since 2003, and why some other clubs have become financial basket cases. When we went down that year, we were one of the few clubs to have relegation clauses in players contracts, and we did not spend on transfer fees as if we still had Premier League TV income. You mention Charlton, who used to be fairly prudent, but that seemed to go out of the window in the middle of the last decade, during the Dowie/Reed/Pardew period, and they have been paying the price since.

Charlton’s experience also illustrates the importance of people. However good your model is, it only works if you have the right people in the system. At Albion, executive chairman Jeremy Peace has defied a lot of criticism, and generally called the big decisions correctly. Football director Dan Ashworth has become so well respected that the FA have poached him. And our only consecutive Premier League seasons have come when we were lucky enough to have one of the game’s most respected coaches in Roy Hodgson.

LR: Prudence should definitely be the watchword, particularly in the light of the most high profile casualty of all, Portsmouth. Figures are often bandied about as to how much a club needs to spend in order to stay up after promotion and this is often set at £20 million (it should be acknowledged that wages are as important a factor as publicised transfer fees). My impression is that this is still way too much for most clubs to contemplate.

You mention the importance of personnel and I have heard it said that pace is one factor that is essential for a healthy Premier League sojourn. Would you agree with this? And which other elements do you feel are essential in building a successful team? Should a promoted team follow what they know and stick to 4-4-2 or follow the fashion of the day and opt for a lone striker coupled with much emphasis on strong man water carrier midfielders?

Also, do you feel that a club should sign promising up and coming players from the Football League (as Norwich did) or aim to recruit from abroad?

FH: I’m not sure there is a minimum figure for how much you have to spend for survival. It’s more about how wisely you use the money. Certainly clubs with a long-term project will channel investment into infrastructure. In terms of player recruitment, its success depends chiefly on your scouting set-up, and based on our experience, I’ve become convinced that the football director system is very effective. I also think there are a few ‘Moneyball’ rules that do apply — for example, free transfers are often better value. McCauley and Yacob at West Brom are good examples. Consider the £11m fee Southampton paid for Gaston Ramirez. That £11m would have paid the wages of five £40k-a-week players for a year. Yet supporters are still in the mindset that you don’t show ambition as a club if you don’t break your transfer fee record regularly.

Pace is important, although the aforementioned McCauley is hardly blessed with it, and he’s been a revelation. But generally, yes, pace will mean the opposition have to think about you a bit more, and sit deeper in defence. In terms of formation, I have seen Albion play 3-5-2, 4-4-2, 4-5-1, and 4-2-3-1 in the Premier League — and I prefer the last one. It is more flexible; if the team’s under the cosh you can pack the midfield; if you’re coming forward, the attacking midfielders have more freedom. 4-4-2 can be very rigid, and requires that the midfielders are ‘all-rounders’, which is probably why James Milner is popular with Roy Hodgson for England. A lot of Albion fans grumbled about Roy’s system at times last season, but you can’t really argue with the results he got…

The policy of signing the best players from the Football League can be successful — I remember Charlton and Bolton did that 10 to 15 years ago. It has the advantage of giving you generally hungry players, on lower-than-average wages, and who will be competitive the following season if you get relegated.

West Brom tried the tactic from 2002 to 2009, but too many players like Robert Earnshaw and, ahem, Lee Hughes, simply didn’t cut it in the top division. Since then, we’ve signed more players from abroad, and perhaps it’s no coincidence we have stayed up for two years. But Norwich, as you say, did well last year with players from the Championship, and we have players like Brunt who was signed from the same division. The key is having a very wide-reaching scouting system; there will be some good players in the Championship, but plenty more abroad.

LR: Some great points about wages. Pavel Pogrebnyak will likely have received a King’s Ransom as signing on fee but the fact that it was a free transfer does make this fan breathe a little easier. I note that more transfers are marked undisclosed these days – PR is important as a buying club doesn’t always want the amount they have paid for a player to be publicized because of course the pressure to do well is greater – hence, Southampton will be getting nervy.

4-2-3-1 is certainly de rigueur as it allows much fluidity – Tottenham were incredibly flexible in the match last Sunday and almost recalled the Total Football of the 70s in the way Sandro and Dembele swapped positions with ease. The other tactical change of recent years has been the lessened reliance of offside as a defensive tactic and this may be a response to the greater pace in opponents’ armoury as you suggest. Andre Villas-Boas’ fabled ‘high line’ was nowhere to be seen on Sunday.

Coming back to the finances, do you think clubs actually deliberately include a relegation or two in their five year plans? Indeed, do they have medium and long terms strategic plans at all?

FH: Yes, unfortunate for Southampton that the Ramirez fee value has slipped out. Of course, there will be occasions when a transfer fee is fair enough, but the bigger it is — particularly for middle-ranking teams — then the more money is going out of your club and not being spent paying your other playing staff or improving facilities (or cutting ticket prices!).

I think any club below the top 8 or so best-supported Premier League clubs would be mad not to plan for relegation. These clubs surely include relegation clauses in player contracts now, don’t they? Do Reading? When there is the possibility that your income could plummet by £25m to £30m a year, you have to plan for it.

I suspect more clubs have longer-term plans now, as the money in modern football has brought with it some decent business people. But equally, that money means plenty of spivs and chancers have been attracted too, tempted by a fast buck, as Portsmouth and co will testify. And unfortunately, I think that fans will always give these people an ear, wanting to believe they’re the next Abramovic, which makes it harder for someone with a sensible business head to run the club well and not be called a tightwad.

On the playing side, there are tighter rules about youth development now, so most clubs have to plan for the long-term on that front. Reading I notice, like West Brom, are going down the EPPP route. What do you make of that?

LR: I have reservations about EPPP and in particular the tendency for smaller clubs in the bottom 3 divisions to not receive market value for the players they discover and nurture. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable that Reading are so vigorously pursuing this route even if it is entirely the logical thing to do from the point of view of economic rationality. I still don’t regard the Royals as a ‘big club’ and am anxious that the team is not seen to be getting ahead of itself. At the moment, the word on the street is that Reading will miss out on being afforded EPPP status this year.

That said, the youth system has begun to bear fruit and Gylfi Sigurdsson is merely the most high profile of the players that Eamonn Dolan and his team have brought through. The club has also enjoyed a promising start to the new under 21 league, winning 6-1 against the Baggies (although ex-Throstle Nicky Shorey and Simon Church were both on the score sheet and are hardly spring chickens).

I’m not sure about relegation clauses although the bulk of the squad were at the club last season and won’t be on huge wages. Of course the other major factor is the extraordinary rise in the Premier League bounty following the signing of a new television deal — with the money rising to a billion a season from 2013-14 . This will make this season’s relegation battle perhaps the most keenly contested ever. In view of this and because of the sums involved, could you see a court battle being waged if two clubs finish level on points with one being relegated due to a controversial refereeing decision? I’m not sure the accountants will accept the ‘human error’ argument when such untold riches are involved.

FH: Youth development should obviously be part of a club’s forward planning. But the rules of EPPP have been drawn up by the game’s giants like Arsenal and Manchester United, and while the resources involved may be chicken feed for them, for lesser clubs like Reading and West Brom they are a major commitment. What happens if you go down — do you keep funding EPPP, or do the funds prop up the first team squad?

I think Albion want to become a renowned centre of excellence for coaching and grooming of young players. That’s partly why we attracted Lukaku this season, apparently. It’s an example of long-term planning that does eventually help in attracting the players you need to stay in the top division, even if they’re sometimes only loanees.

The obscene increase in TV income is, of course, something that is central to our debate. It exacerbates the worst feature of domestic football in the last 20 years; the gulf between the haves and the have-nots of the Premier League and the Football League and its consequent financial catastrophes. Some commentators have predicted more ‘investors’ buying into Championship clubs because they are comparatively cheap but potentially offer a massive return if promoted.

I can’t realistically see the lawyers challenging an on-the-pitch decision following a relegation, though maybe that’s what is needed so that someone will say: ‘we have to stop this gulf getting any wider’.

At the moment in the Premier League, if you’re not one of the elite clubs, it’s like being on a high wire which keeps on getting higher; the views are fantastic, but the prospects if you fall off are unthinkable.

LR: Of course some clubs — notably Birmingham City — now look to be in serious trouble having failed to bounce back at the first attempt — the gamble that Newcastle and West ham managed to rather irritatingly pull off. The superb Swiss Ramble blog also highlighted Bolton Wanderers as a club that might start to feel the pinch if relegated and so it has come to pass.

Two possibilities that have been mooted for the Premier League include Financial Fair Play and a salary cap — the former having been wheeled out at the top level of the European game as well as within the Football league. Would you welcome both? and is there a danger that all it will do will be to bring Manchester City and Chelsea back within the range of Arsenal and Manchester United whilst doing nothing to address the gap between the top 4 (or 8) and the yo yo clubs of what we at the Two Unfortunates have described as The Greater Championship?

FH: Yes, Birmingham City are the latest club to fly too close to the sun. They are still, as far as I’m aware, paying Zigic the £55,000-a-week contract agreed when he signed three years ago, with no wage cut following relegation. Unbelievable.

Some clubs live in fantasy land when setting their budgets, with wildly over-optimistic expectations of their supporter base and match day earning potential.

Interesting you mention West Ham, because their owners used to be in charge at St Andrew’s. They wanted Blues to move to a new 55,000-capacity stadium — 17,000 more than the club’s record average crowd, which was set in 1948. And what do you know, they’re planning the same thing in east London…

Which brings me neatly to your question about Financial Fair Play, because I think it is the owners of the middle-ranking clubs who need to begin discussions about a salary cap or something similar. The elite four or five who normally sow up Champions League places would block it, but they could be out-voted by the rest. Clubs like Reading and West Brom would almost certainly favour a salary cap. It’s the Evertons and Aston Villas who need to wake up and see how it could benefit them too.

Although I have no wish to see Villa winning the league any time soon, I have to say it’s a ridiculous state of affairs when a club with their supporter base cannot dream of competing for the league title. I’m sure Randy Lerner would concur, having spent/squandered almost a quarter of a billion pounds on Villa. As a man who has operated in the NFL, he knows all about the benefits of a salary cap. We can live in hope…

Frank Heaven


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