Perhaps the most significant occurrence of these early weeks of the 2012-13 season has been the transfer embargo imposed upon Swindon Town after the Robins became the first to fall foul of the new League 1 directives that a club’s fees and wages should not exceed 65% of its turnover.
You’ll recall that a transfer tribunal’s insistence that a combined £340,000 be coughed up for James Collins and Troy Archibald-Henville has tipped Swindon above the limit, much to the chagrin of their manager whose name escapes me for the moment.
On first glance, the judgement seems harsh. After all, promising though they may be, neither Collins nor Archibald-Henville is Wayne Rooney – nor Wayne Bridge for that matter. Both fall squarely into the up and coming category and both have joined from clubs generally considered to be smaller than the Wiltshire team in Shrewsbury and Exeter. Should Swindon really be punished for what looks like a clever piece of double scouting?
That the League have acted so quickly is significant, regarding with scorn the claim that half the monies would be paid now and half a year later, as well as their gaffer’s evidence of a long injury list. Nor has any leeway been afforded – Swindon have broken the ceiling by a measly 1.5% while the punishment itself is a draconian one – a fine might have been levied if it were not for the fact that that would seem ‘self-defeatingly ironic’ as Independent journalist Glenn Moore has described such a measure.
The implications of the agreement are wide ranging – not least for a clutch of players still looking for a club – the chances of experienced Premier League or Championship stars maintaining the level of income they are accustomed to a level down are now remote even if some of those we highlighted back in August have now found gainful employment. Not so Ricardo Gardner, Gary Borrowdale or Darius Vassell, just three among many who might strengthen the ranks of a club like Swindon.
Nor does it seem entirely fair that League 1 is exposed to such a ruling when others are merrily over spending. True, an earlier reckoning had been imposed on League 2, albeit to the tune of a 60% wages to turnover ratio, but Championship clubs, currently the chief representatives of a £700 million debt across the three lower divisions, are getting away scot free. Robins’ fans may also rue coming late to the party in view of the way clubs such as Leicester and Southampton have used their greater purchasing power to gain promotion in recent seasons.
That’s not to ignore the real big boys and although UEFA’s phased introduction of financial fair play is now in full swing, the Premier League itself looks unlikely to usher in such a regulation in the near future – not when 14 out of the 20 clubs need to agree and not when a club like Fulham with its crowds of barely 20,000 and Dimitar Berbatov amongst its employees are typical of their number.
So are Swindon being made an example of? Well yes…kind of…but they have also broken a rule that has been set in stone. Indeed, given an earlier transgression that cost the club promotion to the top flight in 1990, the punishment might be construed as rather light.
Ian’s misgivings revolved almost entirely around the new barrier. At the time, with old pros Richard Cresswell, Stephen Quinn and Nick Montgomery all rumoured to be on five figure salaries, the shedding of the even more handsomely paid Ched Evans from the wage bill wasn’t looking like it would be nearly enough to keep the Blades on an even keel.
So dramatic steps were taken. Although able to cling on to one of their stars in Kevin McDonald, Quinn was offloaded to Hull and Matt Lowton got a dream move to Aston Villa while Lee Williamson inexplicably joined Pompey and the loyal Montgomery was transported to Central Coast Mariners. In addition, Cresswell was given someone else’s job to do in addition to his own as he became a player coach and cut price newcomers joined.
One of these, Nick Blackman, arrived from Blackburn after a decidedly chequered history of loan spells, but his impact has been significant thus far, netting five times including a blinder in the 1-0 win at Leyton Orient while Tony McMahon, on the scrapheap at Middlesbrough, has also featured well. Still unbeaten, the Blades’ schedule has been peppered with draws but they are slowly making their presence felt, the realistic rebuilding job immediately bearing fruit.
Even more significantly, Tranmere Rovers’ quite frankly ridiculous start to the campaign has also been achieved with a tiny budget while Stevenage lie second despite the loss of a clutch of their best men to Preston North End – but nor are the latter insensible to the ruling; the acquired roster of ‘non-league brickie types’ look unfamiliar in lilywhite but have nonetheless arrested the slump of recent years and propelled the Lancashire club to the brink of the play offs.
In a perceptive post at his site Narrow the Angle before proceedings got underway, Chris Lines proffered the theory that this year’s League 1 could be the weakest for some years and the shiny early form of unheralded Rovers and Boro, not to mention a Crawley Town side who saw the dangers early and offloaded Tyrone Barnett and Matt Tubbs just in time are indicative of a new seriousness among the third tier’s denizens.
Indeed, the threshold had originally been earmarked at 55% at a Football League club’s meeting in Cyprus – but with the latest television deal standing at £195 million, a full 26% down on the previous one, it was clear that dramatic action needed to be taken – hence the tougher requirement. So, Swindon fans may be wailing and gnashing their teeth but this relatively insignificant penalty should do little to arrest what has been a highly impressive start back in League 1 – I for one wouldn’t bet against them for promotion despite all this. Nor will any of those other clubs be worse off for a bit of financial good husbandry.