Bristol City’s woes are likely to be the norm

Posted by on Dec 6, 2012 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
Bristol City’s woes are likely to be the norm
Image available under Creative Commons (c) the_virgo

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.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham 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 50 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 Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.


  1. Fred
    December 7, 2012

    All very interesting however Avon hasn’t existed since 1996! I know it’s only a small point but a point worth making nonetheless plus I’m a Gashead so don’t care if City flounder.. Thanks

  2. Paul Binning, The Exiled Robin
    December 9, 2012

    A great article, well researched and certainly paints a pretty dire picture of the state of the West’s premier club.

    By way of retort – not that it’s required in the true sense of the word – I thought i’d comment on behalf of the club and the direction they appear to be taking.

    First of all, we are generally eternally grateful to Steve Lansdown. Not many clubs are lucky enough to have a genuine fan at the helm who is rich enough to bankroll the club’ ambition. Although he stepped away from direct Board involvement 18 months ago, he maintains the ultimate say on many issues and the fact that his son, Jon, is the Chief Executive indicates he’s still in it for the long-term.

    The club knows it’s not going well and needs to change, and more importantly are demonstrating the first, tentative steps towards fulfilling that ambition.

    Firstly the accounts obviously relate to last season. Over the summer around 20 players were released from contracts, backroom staff structures were thinned out and the only transfer fees paid out came directly from the monies gained from Nicky Maynard’s move away from Bristol. Although a number of players came in, the indication frmo the club is that around £2-£3m will have come off the annual wage bill by next June.

    Secondly, the clubs total commitment to EPPP and FFP was made clear this week with everyone from the Chairman, to the manager, to the supporter’s liaision officer at pains to talk about the investment and improvement in the Academy. City are going for Phase II Academy status; the best level realistically achievable for all but the very richest and the Chairman even talked about RoI (Return on Investment) on players being an objective for the future. With only two regular first-team starters brought through in the last 10-12 years, this is an area other clubs benefit from massively compared with City currently.

    Finally, and linked, the club has a very clear plan, and it’s one stretching over 5-10, perhaps even 20 years. How many football clubs genuinely have that sort of outlook? Many clubs would have sacked Derek McInnes following the disappointing start to the season but Lansdown is not known for his trigger finger and, again, the club has been effusive in pointing out the high level of involvement Derek has had across the changes made to the entire club’s structure and in particular the Academy.

    With the mov to the new stadium still hopefully on the horizon, the long-term future is, theoretically at least, very bright. The view seems to be that we’re streets ahead of many in inveesting in infrastructure and the future, rather than the present, and that will bear fruit in due course.

    The Arsenal of the Championship? Not quite, but just as the Gunners seem to be happy to wait until FFP hits the clubs owned by Billionaires andbrings them back to a more level playing field, City’s Board appear to be playing a similar waiting game.

    And as a fan, I can only say best of luck to them!

  3. Lloyd
    December 9, 2012

    An interesting piece which paints a worrying picture for Bristol City, particularly in the way that the situation compares to (fellow World Cup bidders) Argyle’s a few years ago as supporters began to lose interest in watching lower table Championship football while expenditure crept ever higher.

    On the positive side of things, City have a backer that seems to be much more committed, and wealthy. And you’re making plans for a more sustainable future, which involves a new stadium which will help to generate new revenue.

    But what of the interim before City get to the point at which their academy begins to bear fruit and before they move into their new stadium? As the club continues to cut costs, will supporters buy into the long-term plan or will the inevitable knock-on effect — poor results — see numbers drop even further?

    Will the board respond by knee-jerking, making changes to the management, or bringing in loanees such as Neil Danns, when the going gets tough? Or will they remain steadfastly committed to the wider picture?

    That Swiss Ramble piece ended by looking ahead to the future, if and when Ashton Vale is built. My worry would be about what lies in store between now and then.

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