Swindon Town, Sheffield United and Financial Fair Play

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Image available under Creative Commons (c) GDS Infographics

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.

Take Sheffield United. Widely considered favourites for the League 1 title eight weeks ago; our season previewer Ian Rands of the excellent A United View on Football website cast a note of caution.

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.

Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 44 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, Twisted Blood, In Bed with Maradona, A United View on Football and The Blizzard.

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15 Comments on "Swindon Town, Sheffield United and Financial Fair Play"

  1. Rob says:

    Doesn’t seem the harshest of punishments. Signing more players is just going to take them further over the limit, so the embargo stops them doing that. A punishment that actually fits the crime for once!

  2. matt says:

    Cracking post and spot on atout the blades . We have had to lose the top earners and people have thought season over but Were 3rd without getting out off 3rd gear. Swindon was always going to be close to the ffp and i bet other club are .

  3. LSM says:

    All very well penalising Swindon but can someone tell me how Portsmouth continue to get away with staying in administration, fielding players on short term but expensive contracts. Admittedly they have better gates than a number of League 1 clubs but are at least 5,000 down on Sheffield Utd, whose average is in the region of 18,000. They have already admitted that they are expecting to pay wages in excess of £2.6m. Surely that can’t be right. Rules for one springs to mind.

  4. AF says:

    We average well over 24,000 at Fulham you idiot hardly barely 20 thousand son

  5. Lanterne Rouge says:

    The Pompey situation is weird – perhaps both the wages/fees and turnover totals are measured for a given year so Portsmouth are getting away with it for now because some of the players they have acquired are on very short term contracts.

    • David says:

      My understanding is that the turnover includes the parachute payments, which, off the tp of my head, I think were around £3.4m a year.
      Hence Pompey have an extra £2.2m (or £44k a week) than they would normally have.

  6. Ray says:

    All very well bringing in these things but I have been told that 3 kids employed at Swindon in the shop etc have lost their jobs, does that seem fair?

    • Lanterne Rouge says:

      A really good point Ray and three quarters of Sheffield United’s backroom staff were also mentioned as being at risk of redundancy in the Ian Rands post I mention in the article. Perhaps the regulations should state that it should only be players’ and playing staff’s bwages which count in all this?

      • 8balltiger says:

        I think it is just the playing staffs wages that count , the backroom staff affect turnover though.
        Apologies if I am wrong.

  7. Stan says:

    Perfectly straight forward. Shrewsbury could have offered James Collins the same deal as Swindon did, but that could have risked exceeding 65% of their turnover and so they didn’t do it. Swindon did do it and therefore acquired a better player, but broke the rules.
    As a supporter of a well run club I’m sick of clubs profiting from living beyond their means. Yes eventually it always comes back to haunt them (like pompey) but for the seasons in-between everyone else has to suffer.

  8. Phil says:

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned though is that Swindon were made to pay 100% of the costs upfront as opposed to 50% now and 50% in 12 months like most tribunals , therefore hadn’t budgeted for the whole amount and its that that put them over the 65%. Now im not saying that is right and im all for clubs living within their means, but the FL would have known that in one way or another, so maybe a bit of a case of them looking to find a club to make an example of? they were probably rubbing their hands in glee with the prospect of Di Canio’s team being punished and the Fl looking rosy for it, when as previously mentioned, clubs like Portsmouth continue to dodge the bullet, and Crawley’s small gates and lavish spending goes unnoticed by most……..

  9. Alan says:

    Surely 55% would have been a tougher requirement as the wage bill would have to be lower to stay within the threshold? E.g turnover of £100k, wages would have to be max £65k at 65% but £55k at 55%.

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