“The year has it’s rhythms – winter, spring, summer, fall. The whole thing is cyclical. You got your upswings in the spring, you got your downturns in the fall. It’s just like the market. Cyclical business, right? You can have a bull market for five, ten, even fifteen years. We’ve seen it in our lifetime. But we’ve also seen corrections…”
“The correction, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a more gradual letdown, a year long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor.” – Jonathan Frantzen “The Corrections”
If football imitates life, and we have been forever told over the last decade that football is now a business, then perhaps the leaves are turning. As we know, in the real world the seasons vary between hemispheres, and summer in one place is winter in another. In this respect football is more like the seasons than other businesses, in that one team’s spot in the sunshine is inevitably another’s dog days.
Down at the Vetch we have endured at least seven years of bleak outlook . Indeed, some might argue that the climate has been positively Siberian for the last twenty years with a few promising springs never turning into a lasting summer. However, having got through the long black nights, we might just be about to see the first shoots of recovery, and it might be that it is others’ turn to concentrate on surviving the cold. The corrections may be setting in. In all likelihood this will not be a big bang involving football as a whole, but more a series of small bubbles popping as those teams who are ill equipped to deal with the new climate face the chill. It will be interesting to see who fills the roles of fools and working poor. If the likes of Wimbledon and York City always possessed the credentials for latter role, the former is open all comers, and some interesting candidates are turning up at the auditions.
Events at Leeds United over the last month, and in particular during the final week of the transfer window have certainly created headlines and suggest that the red marker pen has arrived at Elland Road with a full barrel of ink. For a number of years since the inception of the Premier League in 1992 football enjoyed a lengthy boom. If the first signs of the cycle turning came with the collapse of ITV Digital, Leeds’ problems illustrate that the marker pen also hovers over some of the “name” teams of the Premiership whose spending has outweighed achievement.
Until recently relegation from the top division was reputed to be the trigger for financial disaster for middling to large clubs. Now it seems failure to qualify for the Champions League can cause a club’s finances to plummet to the point where it’s very existence is threatened. Where Leeds’ tailspin will end will doubtlessly be the cause of much interest, and not a little schadenfreud, amongst the fans of other clubs. Rarely a team to inspire affection in the neutral, their squad now has something of a threadbare look to it, and a few key injuries combined with further departures over the summer could see it take on a distinctly Nationwide look. Much will depend on Terry Venables much renowned motivational skills and his ability to call in contacts to wheel and deal.
Notwithstanding his attempts to justify his strategy to the press last week, Leeds’ supremo Peter Risdale’s explanations as to the cause of the current crisis beg as many questions as they answer. It seems that Risdale budgeted on the basis of the income to be derived from Champions League qualification, and by implication pins the blame on former manager David O’Leary and his expensive squad for their failure to deliver. For those of us who were mystified by the suddenness and timing of O’Leary’s departure, the appointment of an experienced old hand such as Venables now makes sense.
Even allowing for the diversion of courtroom appearances, Risdale’s explanation doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. He fails to explain why he based his business plan on the income generated by a wholly optimistic view of success on the field. No slack was allowed for failure to meet such lofty aims. Football, as Mr Risdale may have noticed, is a competitive sport. Many teams chase the same dreams, and by definition only a limited few can succeed. Expenditure on players can give a boost to a team but ultimate success can turn on a referee’s decision or the thickness of a post. In the context of champions league qualification, success is a top four finish. Risdale put his entire stake on this high achieving outcome. As a casual bet this wouldn’t be a bad call. Where it involved his club’s future stability it was high risk to say the least. As a strategy this surely had more in common with Jack Duckworth than Jack Walker.
Yet basing a budget on the vagaries of future success is hardly new in football, Leeds having merely raised the stakes. In truth they only had to look a few miles away to Bradford to see what can happen if a club’s future finances are based on an optimistic view of success on the pitch. Closer to home, a brief telephone call to Malcolm Struel would have opened Risdale’s eyes to the dangers of basing a budget on estimated future attendances. In the Swans’ case the failure was arguably the more cruel because in the first season in the old first division success on the field exceeded most people’s most optimistic predictions.
Much is made in some quarters of the failure to sell out a home game that season. Many people find this a questionable statistic bearing in mind the apparent squeeze in all parts of the ground for certain fixtures, and many question the accuracy of official attendance figures. However, one must also question whether the gates were in truth as bad as some in the Welsh media might make out. The early eighties were a dread time for British football, with attendances on a downward slide, hooliganism rife and spectator facilities resembling an ill kept farmyard. The Welsh rugby team were only just about to commence their apparently terminal decline, and club fixtures remained attractive to the floating supporter. The club had come a long way in a short time and whether it was realistic to expect the entire area to become fanatics overnight is questionable.
Having said all of that, one doesn’t want to knock Malcolm Struel and company, unduly. They did have the guts to try and make a dream reality, and in the case of the former Chairman, paid a high personal price. For years Swansea had lived on speculation of what “might have been” if the likes of Ivor Allchurch and Cliff Jones hadn’t been allowed to leave in the 1950s. Would we really have wanted the conservative path followed by the unambitious Cardiff City at the time? Ultimately this was a dream that turned into a financial nightmare, but how many of us were urging caution at the time.The period represented a glorious summer, but harsh lessons were to be learned in the particular winter that followed. Those are lessons that should not have to be learned again.
The Doug Sharp years represented a period of relative stability. However, it was always questionable as to whether he had the financial wherewithal to take the club beyond the second division solidity we had achieved in the early 1990s, and a great opportunity to advance was lost around 1993. In many repects Doug was the epitome of the old style local businessman who ran his local club, and did not take kindly to outside interference. Football had certainly started to change by the mid 90s and Doug was realistic enough to know that his one man show was living on borrowed time. Had he decided to give up his exclusive hold on his kingdom at that stage and bring in more local investment then the history of the club over the last ten years might have been very different. Instead, we joined the “dash for cash” which seemed to be the order of the day. In common with many clubs across the country we sought a millionaire or corporate ownership to lead us to the promised land. Cue Michael Thompson and Ninth Floor with their empty promises.
Football outside of the top echelons always seemed an unlikely business bet, with a history of clubs living hand to mouth. However, we were told that the new generation of owners would bring to the game the financial disciplines which the traditional owners had lacked. Unfortunately, history shows that not all of the new owners had the financial resources they claimed, whilst many lacked business competency. It seems that having the titles “chief executive” and “plc” in the management credits was no more a guarantee of good business sense when it came to running a football club than the descriptions of butcher or baker. When Bo Ekland made his brief cameo appearance there were those who pointed up the M4 and said that this was the only way to run a club in the new world of football as business opportunity. However, as times change and the cycle turns one must ask the question as to whether this was yesterday’s solution.
Behind all the “Barcelona” rhetoric, which appears ill fitting to the reality of Wales, one can only wonder as to what Sam Hammam’s true vision at Cardiff is. Is he the immigrant who seeks personal acceptance, or the sharp operator with an eye for an opportunity? As we have seen, the notion of making money out of the football side of a club is open to question, particularly if the business cycle is turning. If the Lebanese businessman is hoping to repeat the trick he conjured at Wimbledon where he sold his share of the club at a massive profit, then he may find that the times have changed, particularly for those who have spent to secure success. If the perceived land of perpetual spring was the Premiership, and the Champions league the long hot summer then events at Leeds serve as a reminder that too much sun can be harmful. Might Cardiff be one of the clubs for whom massive outlay on players was more barmy than balmy? At Wimbledon the size and nature of the crowds led Sam to sell to those who ultimately felt that they had bought a pup. What price the snarling bulldog of Cardiff if the corrections have arrived?
To date the large outlay at Cardiff has seen limited success. Whilst football has the habit of making apparently cast iron predictions appear ridiculous, at the present time Wigan appear to be disappearing over the horizon, leaving four clubs fighting over the remaining automatic promotion place. For all the money spent, Cardiff currently have a team which is effectively the equal of Oldham and Crewe, neither of whom have spent appreciably. Indeed, over the last few years Crewe have epitomised the well run smaller club who through good management have punched above their weight. If promotion is not achieved this season might we see the red ink of correction flowing as liberally at Ninian Park as the red blood of away fans?
Ultimately, large scale expenditure on players can assist success but by no means guarantees it. If money bought Blackburn a Premiership title, then it has brought Wolves the most expensive non-promotion in recent football history. Indeed, Sam Hammam need only look about a mile east across Cardiff to the rugby club where large scale expenditure has failed to bring either European glory, or even Welsh domination. Now dreams of European glory are likely to disappear in merger. If football always seemed a questionable business proposition then club rugby seemed even more so. Many would say that the pie man and Simple Simon were one and the same in that instance.
The new reality of the transfer market in these post Bosman, post ITV Digital, post transfer window days is that there are good players available at an affordable cost. Whilst it would be jumping the gun to get over excited on the basis of the last three games, we saw signs at Rushden on Saturday that we have a team that can genuinely compete. We also managed to play some decent football for what seemed like the first time in years. Whatever questions may remain over his tactical acumen and motivational skills, Brian Flynn has shown that it is possible to bring in half decent footballers who can do a job without breaking the bank. Whilst we don’t know the precise details of how much money has been made available to Flynn for wages as compared to Cusack, it does seem that the latter simply made bad calls as to players. Money does not seem to be the real issue whereas experience and contacts in the transfer market do. Without apparently spending unduly, we suddenly look as if we have the players to turn matters around.
In the 1990s football broke out of the gloom and gradual decline which had afflicted much of the game since the 1970s. A more businesslike approach undoubtedly helped bring about overdue change, and few mourned the passing of the old style autocrats who had run clubs as personal fiefdoms. However, the undoubted faults of the old guard did not necessarily mean that the new pretenders were without fault. In the spirit of the times many of those who became involved were motivated by profit, although in the event many had no realistic idea of how to achieve it. Football was always an unreliable bet in this regard, success for one club spelling failure for another. Leeds are probably the most high profile of the clubs who have been led into trouble, but one hardly expects them to be the last. The fall out of budgets based on huge television revenue and over optimistic anticipated levels of success on the field is likely to be with us for some time.
If we accept that the era of the Doug Sharps of the world is over, but also see their 1990s replacements as equally flawed, then what is the answer for club ownership? This rather depends on one’s view of what a football club represents. One view is that a football club is a social institution, and a community asset. The very roots of football clubs lie in the idea of social interaction. This is not to say that we should seek to return to some sort of Corinthian ideal, but simply that clubs should maintain their broader place in the community, whilst still being run on businesslike lines. The one great thing that came out of the Petty era was the collective effort of fans, be they relatively well-healed local businessman or the less affluent via the trust. Such communal strength was born of something ultimately more powerful than either parochial egomania or the profit motive. Over the next couple of years we may see the end of the notion of football as cash cow in all but the instances of a handful of clubs. If the future for clubs of our size is a balanced ownership between local business and fans, and the new climate brings sanity to the previously inflated transfer and wage market, then we might just for once be in the right place at the right time.
The situation at Leeds shows that no club is too large to suffer the chill winds of change. The Peter Risdales of the world were supposed to deliver business acumen, and ultimately financial returns for their shareholders. For as long as the boom lasted this high maintenance worldview held sway, before an inevitable reality kicked in. If the corrections bring disaster to the “working poor”, there will always be a list of the usual suspects amongst smaller clubs ready to assume that role. The identity of the large and medium clubs who will play the fool could be interesting.