The Cost of Ambition
Of the three divisions in the Football League, the Championship is possibly the most fragmented both in terms of the relative sizes of its member clubs and, by extension, their ambitions. Whilst, with four or five exceptions, there is not a huge difference between the size of the clubs in Leagues 1 and 2, there exists great inequality within the Championship in this respect. There are, of course, many parameters dictating how big a club is – history, budget, stadium – but if we take attendance as a barometer, we can see that Newcastle get over five times the average attendance of Blackpool and Scunthorpe. As with everything in football, the pound sign rules supreme.
As well as – or maybe due to – being an unequal division, the Championship is also a transient one. Few teams settle in it for long; they either reach the dizzy heights of the Premiership or sink into lower-league obscurity. Of the 24 teams who were in the division five years ago, only 11 remain there today. Two of that select group are Cardiff and Crystal Palace, both of whom have, despite grand ambitions to reach higher, become settled as mid-ranking Championship outfits. Both have a colourful recent history in terms of ownership – Sam Hammam and Peter Ridsdale at Cardiff; Ron Noades, Mark Goldberg and Simon Jordan at Palace, both have spent the last few seasons flirting with the Championship playoffs without actually managing promotion, and both now find themselves either in, or close to, administration. A rumoured bid for Palace by rapper P Diddy is just the latest outlandish episode at a club at which stability has never exactly been a watchword.
In essence, both Cardiff and Palace are examples of what happens when a club gambles everything on jumping on board the Premiership gravy train and falls short. The results are a bruised ego, multiple (financial) bumps and bruises, and the theft of your prized assets by roadside muggers with more muscle than you have. The sales over the past year of Glenn Loovens at Cardiff and Victor Moses at Palace are just two examples of this. Adam Matthews and Nathaniel Clyne both look to be heading the same way in the not-too-distant future. After looking like playoff contenders for most of the season, Palace now find themselves in a relegation battle following their ten-point deduction for going into administration. Cardiff still sit in the playoff places, but will surely not be there at the end of the season if supporters’ fears prove correct and they enter administration, too.
Tales such as this pose a quandary for us football fans. However much we want to put our fingers in our collective ears and shout ‘La, la, I’m not listening’, it is an unavoidable fact that finance bears more heavily on the collective conscience of football supporters now than it ever has done. Thirty years ago, for example, expressions like ‘administration’, ‘management buy out’, ‘corporate hospitality’ and ‘CVA’ would not have registered on most fans’ radars – certainly not in relation to football, anyway. Today they are bandied around on a daily basis. The increased expenditure caused by the inflation in players’ wages, the huge sums on offer as reward for getting to the Premier League and the ability of supporters to co-ordinate more than in the past due to the internet have all contributed to this. The amount of information now available to the dedicated football supporter is massive compared to pre-internet times, when one relied on newspapers, radio and, if you supported a big team, Match of the Day for your football fix. Whilst this has made some supporters more informed, it has also challenged the way we approach supporting and potentially made supporting one’s team a more challenging experience than it was previously.
As fans, we all want to see our teams win. We all want the best players to play for our team, and for our team to be playing – and beating – the best other teams in the highest division. We may castigate ‘fairweather fans’ and ‘glory hunters’, but we all want glory ourselves. We follow football for the emotion, for the spirit it engenders amongst ‘fellow travellers’, for the passion, but also for the banter, to have the bragging rights amongst friends and colleagues. We spend hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds following our team each season. We do not follow them to see them lose. But if the price of trying to attain success is administration or – worse – liquidation , how does this then affect what we want for our clubs?
Football clubs are businesses, yet they are different kinds of businesses to Tesco or Sainsbury’s, for example. Nobody says ‘I am a Tesco fan’ or ‘I am a Marks & Spencer fan’ in the same way as one says ‘I am a Reading fan’ or ‘I am a Cardiff fan’. The uncertainty and emotional attachment that football matches produce mean that this will always be the case. However, the rules of business apply to football clubs just as much as other businesses, which is why HMRC have correctly taken legal action against numerous clubs recently for non-payment of taxes. For football club owners, the wish to appease fans must be balanced with the realities of running a business. The temptation to gamble is made all the stronger by clubs such as Bolton and Burnley, whose overspending in the Championship has been covered by Premiership TV money following promotion. When gambles pay off they are great; when they don’t, as Palace and Cardiff have discovered, the consequences can be catastrophic.
West Brom chairman Jeremy Peace has recently defended his board’s frugal spending policy amidst continued accusations of a lack of ambition. Past evidence certainly suggests it will be difficult for WBA to establish themselves in the Premiership in the near future unless they are prepared to invest more heavily in their playing budget, but at the same time to put the club’s future in jeopardy in the pursuit of short-term success would make Peace an irresponsible chairman. Unfortunately, however, ‘long-term stability’ is not a slogan that will win chairman any popularity contests, and whilst football clubs continue to rely on gate receipts as a core income stream, the pressure to bow to supporters’ on-field desires will remain difficult to resist.
The vast sums at the top of the game and the numerous financial catastrophes that have befallen football clubs in the Championship and elsewhere – of which Cardiff and Crystal Palace are just two of this season’s highest profile examples – are the two sides of an increasingly extreme coin. As a fan, wanting your team to win and wanting them to survive should not be mutually exclusive. For any supporter who cares about their team’s long-term prospects, however, simply wanting on-field success is no longer an option. The digital age has allowed greater access to all manner of information, from player twitter feeds to club information at Companies House. Inevitably, this has also led to an increasing number of questions being asked by fans of club owners. As the game has changed, so the pastime of supporting one’s team has had to change too. As fans of teams up and down the country have started to realise, what happens on the field is just one part of what is a highly complicated jigsaw puzzle.