Discuss the playing standard in the First Division with people who have followed it all season and there’s a chance that they’ll wince and shake their heads and point out that West Brom have been promoted. In fact Albion’s return to the Premiership, whatever one may think of their playing style, is one of the more heartening stories of the season: a team that struggled against relegation from the top level throughout 2002-03 have bounced straight back, rather than being preoccupied with escaping from the financial hole they dug for themselves through trying to stay up.
After all, Bradford, still struggling on debts incurred in two seasons at the top level, have just gone down to the Second where they’ll be playing another over-spender, Sheffield Wednesday, whose form was so poor in 2004 that if this season had gone on another month they might even have gone down to the Third.
Some West Brom fans were unhappy with the club’s lack of activity in the transfer market after the previous promotion from the First two years ago, but all should now be grateful to that their board was not afflicted by the disease that has struck so many football chairmen in recent years, who ignore the balance sheet and boast only of how much they have spent. Instead, West Brom will be hoping to join Charlton, who took a similarly pragmatic approach in 1998-99, in becoming Premiership regulars.
Already, though, we are hearing about how such and such a club needs to spend big to “get to the next level”, whether the target is European qualification or simply mid-table safety. The Wolverhampton Express and Star, for instance, resolutely refusing to learn any lessons from local rivals, recently complained: “Wolves spent initial transfer fees of £3.75 million last summer followed by £2.25m in the January transfer window and have been found wanting.” Paul Ince, apparently, “has urged the club’s hierarchy to learn the lessons of this season”.
The lessons the board seem to have learned are the right ones, luckily for the supporters, if not all the players. Paul Butler has criticised Wolves for failing to offer him and ten team-mates new deals until it was clear which division the club would be in next season. “I’m very disappointed with the club’s attitude over the contracts and I am not the only one. I think the club is taking the easy way out here and there are a lot of players who feel the same way.”
Butler is simply a player who fails to realise that football exists for the pleasure of the supporters, not to support him and his team-mates in the manner to which they have become accustomed from watching Footballers’ Wives. Yet there will be disappointed fans, too, who feel Ince and Butler are right, for whom money is the only important yardstick. But, as Manchester City supporters have been the latest to discover, money just encourages false optimism.
The move from Maine Road to the 48,000-capacity City of Manchester stadium was meant to generate the financial muscle to enable them to become a top-six club. But in spite of the arrivals in recent years of Robbie Fowler, Nicolas Anelka, Trevor Sinclair et al they have struggled. The let-down from failed, excessive ambition has cost them; not half as much, though, as if they had been relegated with £50,000-a-week Steve McManaman on their books. For a club with an uncertain financial position this was Icarus-like folly.
Things got so bad that former chairman David Bernstein, who had left after a row with Kevin Keegan over how much the latter wanted to pay for Fowler, offered to come back as an unpaid adviser to help sort out a ballooning debt that might be £40m or as much as double that (quite a burden for the inevitable Russian billionaire, in this case one Vladimir Potanin, who has been linked with a takeover bid). Keegan says he wants to stick around, but it could be more the case that the club can’t afford to sack him and his staff.
Dave Jones. Alan Curbishley. Gary Megson. Even Micky Adams. Managers who have worked within restraints and ensured that fans have clubs to go to watch, whatever the division. It’s time to get on the phones and tell 6.06 that you are grateful to these managers and the boards that have made sure they have not overspent; time to drown out those demanding to spend other people’s money in pursuit of a wild gamble.
From WSC 208 June 2004. What was happening this month