A recent edition of Sky’s Football League Review turned momentarily into a version of The Price is Right. Studio guest Steve Claridge was shown footage of two young English players with Championship clubs and asked how much money they might reasonably be sold for in the transfer window. Claridge, brow furrowed in the manner of a contestant weighing up the true value of a rice cooker or teak shelving unit, gravely suggested that one might go for £5-6 million, the other for £2-3m.
Transfer fees have, historically, been the main tool to redistribute wealth through the lower leagues and smaller cubs are entitled to be compensated for time spent in bringing through young players. But the fees being demanded and paid for British players are insane already and are continuing to grow.
In August, Gary McSheffrey moved between two Championship clubs, Coventry and Birmingham, for £4m. He will be judged to have been worth the expense if his goals take Steve Bruce’s team up. But many of these transfers are doomed to failure. Only three teams can go up and three will go down, from the Championship and also the Premiership. Those that fail will pay a heavier price than just the one for the overrated flash-in-the-pan purchase.
Clubs in the second tier have long been prone to overspend, in an attempt to gain access to what has become the wealthiest league in the world. Promotion has been estimated to be worth around £40m, based on at least a season in the top flight followed by the “parachute payments”. This is likely to rise by around £15m when the new TV deal begins next season. It’s a tempting prize, but an illusory one, too, because clubs won’t hold on to much of the money.
Player wages in the Championship are at record levels, but there is less correlation between spending and league position in the Championship than in the Premiership, because the differentials are smaller. Teams that budget sensibly can compete. If promotion is earned, then the increased income is not usually invested with the longer term in benefit. It pours straight into the pockets of the players signed to try to keep the club in the Premiership, many of whom will be happy to play elsewhere the next season in the event of relegation.
Ticket prices are jacked up, to help meet the enormous wage bills. Even spectators at matches in the bottom two divisions are routinely required to stump up £20 or more, which has the wider purchasing power in excess of a top-flight ticket from 1990. Yet no one could seriously claim that supporters are getting more in terms of quality of play and entertainment value, or even spectator comfort – given a choice, many season-ticket holders at all-seat stadiums would prefer to stand on terraces.
The increased income pouring into the game isn’t making domestic football more competitive. The trend is firmly in the other direction – the top four Premiership clubs now earn more than all the Football League clubs combined. Manchester United, with a stadium holding 76,000, can earn more from one match than some League clubs do in a year. The divide will continue to widen with the new TV deal and the injection of spare cash from billionaires.
At best, the Football League clubs are spending their bankers’ millions for the chance to be Premiership also-rans. The only guaranteed winners here are the players of average ability and effort who are paid like superstars. It is folly for Championship teams or those lower down to pay such huge wages. If those players don’t get what they ask for, they’re not going to hang on until Real Madrid come in with an offer. Unfortunately, there seems too often to be another club with more ambition than sense. You would have thought the presence of Leeds, hovering around the Championship relegation zone six years after losing a European Cup semi-final, might act as some kind of warning.
Perhaps fans will carry on paying through the nose to watch lower-division games – crowds outside the top flight are one of the great success stories of the English game, compared to anywhere else you care to mention. But booms have always come to an end in the past and the smaller outfits are most vulnerable to any kind of bust. It would be a farcical tragedy if League clubs used the most lucrative time in their history not to achieve lasting financial security but to risk it all for the chance to make a few journeymen richer.
From WSC 24o February 2007. What was happening this month