Football Management

Commentary on the management of over 160 English football clubs by Dr John Beech, winner of the FSF Writer of the Year Award 2009/10 Twitter: @JohnBeech Curator of! Football Finance

Archive for the ‘Relegation’ Category

A day of reckoning

Posted by John Beech on May 23, 2011

I managed to follow the great play-off between AFC Wimbledon (to whom, many congratulations) and Luton Town (to whom, commiserations) at least live online.  Football at its most exciting.  I wonder if Andy Burnham chose quite the right words though when he tweeted “Wimbledon back in Football League. Brilliant. A great victory for all football supporters over the money men. Well done to all at AFC.”  I’m sure he wasn’t referring to Luton as ‘the money men‘, although his comment would have been entirely appropriate if Wimbledon had beaten Crawley Town.

Yesterday, with the final day of Premier League games, unfortunately found me in the Tirol in a hotel room, arriving and logging on just after the games had started.  Heady stuff, and probably the most exciting afternoon in the PL all season.  As Alan Hansen was moved to write (1), “The big winner has been the Premier League itself, because this season has shown it to be the most exciting of the lot. ”  I’m not sure that I would enirely agree with his argument.

It struck me, particularly as I was feeling somewhat removed from the action, that it was distinctly odd that all the excitement was over who would or wouldn’t be relegated.  Aston Villa v. Liverpool, Everton v. Chelsea, and Fulham v. Arsenal were attracting very little attention from the twitterati.  Is this the grand scheme of things that the greedy breakaway Chairman of the old First Division envisioned some twenty years ago?  I came to the conclusion that in fact, yes, it was, had they bothered to think their plans through.  To me it is yet another symptom of what is wrong with the governance of English football.  Who is or isn’t relegated is clearly an important part of the general excitment of football, but it surely shoudn’t be the major focus.

The sacking of Ancelotti (2) because “this season’s performances have fallen short of expectations and the club feels the time is right to make this change ahead of next season’s preparations” to me provides yet more evidence of just how dysfunctional the Premier League has become.

Relegation from the Premier League undoubtedly puts serious financial pressure on a club.  When the drop in broadcasting revenues is netted off against the parachute payment, one is looking at a drop of £30m-£25m in revenues.  To this must be added a drop in matchday revenues (reduced attendance and lowered ticket prices) and a drop in merchandising sales, although these will vary from club to club, depending on the loyalty of their fans, in particular how large the core of ’till I die’ fans is.  Clubs may face a contractual drop in sponsorship fees, and may or may not have had the wisdom to include relegation clauses in their players’ contracts.  In other words, any club relegated faces a financial problem, but some may face significantly harder problems than those who had planned for the eventuality.  Clubs will also be in different states of financial health to start with.

Last week I was asked by BBC West Midlands to review the prospects for Wolves and Birmingham City should they be relegated.  On virtually every financial measure Wolves looked far more resilient to facing the drop than Birmingham City.  West Ham will undoubtedly face serious difficulties too, and only Blackppol look reasonably equipped to face the drop.

The Football League season is not quite finished, but further down the pyramid things are clearer with respect to next season.  AFC Wimbledon and Crawley Town are joining the Football league, the epitome of fan ownership and ‘benefactor’-induced financial doping respectively.  At the other end of the Conference National, it’s goodbye to Southport, Altincham (whose luck in benefitting from other clubs’ financial problems finally ran out, Eastbourne Borough, and Histon.  I’m sorry to see Eastbourne Borough go down as they were the most senior English club which is a Community Interest Company (CIC).  As an interesting aside, the Scottish Premier League may well have a CIC as a menber in the coming season – St Mirren (3).  This is a case that is well worth following, as the current owners are seeking to sell the club in a way that was  “making sure it remained sustainable and debt-free” (4).

Lower down the pyramid, the upcoming movements are plotted here.  Good to see resurrection clubs AFC Telford and Farsely on the way up.  It’s interesting to note that Ilkeston are listed as ‘reinstated’, good news for their fans following their resurrection (5), but I wonder what, for example, King’s Lynn fans or Grays Athletic fans will make of the reinstatement decision.

Finally I turn to a football story that is relevant to me in my immediate circumstances, but which does not seem to have well covered by the English-speaking  media, although due credit to Yahoo! Sport (6) for being an exception.  The story quite simply is that a major derby match between Rapid Vienna and Austria Vienna was abandoned after 26 minutes following a major pitch invasion – see here and  here.  Disturbing images that we hope we will not see moving further northwards and westwards.  After thirty minutes of disruption, the police felt unable to guarantee the safety of the players in a resumed match.  We seem to have moved onward from such dark days in England, and it was good to note the Birmingham City fans staying on at White Hart Lane to show what they had in common with Spurs fans (7).

Mind you, I suspect that “Thursday night, Channel Five” is not really going to catch on on the terraces.

Posted in Broadcasting rights, Costs, Economic impact, Fans, Football Conference, Governance, Merchandising, Premier League, Promotion, Pyramid movement, Relegation, Revenues, Sponsorship | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Top 91 Clubs?

Posted by John Beech on May 29, 2010

The uncertainty and overall shambles characterising the allocation of clubs next season in the Non-League divisions (see Appendix E: Tough Love for Salisbury City?) is in danger of spreading to the Football League.

Grimsby Town, together with Darlington, occupied the two bottom slots of League 2 at the end of the season just gone, and are therefore relegated.  Stockport County, who finished bottom of League 1 and are thus destined for League 2 this coming season, remain in Administration, having entered that state back in April 2009.  Football League rules state that a club cannot enter two consecutive seasons in Administration, and, unless Stockport County rapidly get their act together to come out of Administration, they will be ineligible to begin the coming season in League 2.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Grimsby Town approached the Football League to enquire whether Stockport County’s failure to come out of Administration would mean they (Grimsby, having finished bottom but one) would then be reprieved.

The answer they received from the Football League is that they would not be reprieved should Stockport fail to come out of Administration, and “according to Football League rules, we would operate with 23 clubs in League Two next season” (1).

Now, some might see Grimsby’s attempt to gain a reprieve as clutching at straws and that they should just quietly accept relegation.  That is a matter for debate.  But what is a matter of fact is that Football League rules, designed to punish a club for financial misdemeanours (in this case, Stockport, who are not even actually in League 2), would result in one League 2 club every Saturday next season sitting twiddling its thumbs and failing to take much needed revenue at the turnstiles.  In other words, the Football League would have contrived to hit every club in League 2 financially as a result of the financial misdemeanours of a previous season’s League 1 club!  It frankly defies belief.

No doubt Grimsby would also point to the case of Forest Green, potentially reprieved in the Conference National if Salisbury City are ejected for financial problems.  But then, consistency never was a strong point of football governance.

Posted in Football League, Governance, Pyramid movement, Relegation | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The descent of Grays Athletic

Posted by John Beech on May 28, 2010

As I said in my last blog post Appendix E: Tough Love for Salisbury City?, Grays Athletic face a rather worse fate rather than straightforward relegation to the Conference South.  It’s a depressing tale, and one can’t help feeling it was an accident waiting to happen to a club.

The club had faced and survived a crisis at the beginning of the eighties.  In 1981 they seemed to have achieved a significant measure of stability when, as it still says on the club website (1 ) as I write, “the Club Patron, Mr. Ron Billings, ensured the future of Grays Athletic at the Rec by purchasing the ground“.  What it doesn’t mention is that Ron Billings and his family were  property developers (oh dear, you can almost guess at this point the way this is going to go).

Shortly after this, new management came in, and the club started to make progress.  In 1983 however, a fire destroyed the main stand, but again benefactor Ron Billings stepped in, building the Ball Court Complex which included Dressing Rooms, Club Room and Bar (2).

In 1990 a new 20-year lease was signed and all still looked well, but it is the coming to an end of this lease that has precipitated the current crisis.  It needs pointing out though that the club has had twenty years to prepare a ‘plan B’ in case the lease was not renewed.

Ten years ago Micky Woodward appeared on the scene.  He’s a difficult man to summarise – ‘eccentric’ springs to mind, as does ‘inconsistent’.  For example, in 2003 he tried to buy Peterborough United (3), but, having failed, turned Grays into the first club beyond the Conference to be full-time (4).

As Chairman/Director of Football Woodward has had, well, unusual relationships with his managers.  At the end of May 2006 Woodward recruited Frank Gray as manager (5), only to sack him five months later (6) and to take on the managerial role himself (7).  “Why pay someone else to run the club when I can do it?” as he put it.  Three weeks later he seemed to have found the answer to this rhetorical question, appointing Andy King as manager (8).

By the end of 2006 Woodward had started to address the issue of a stadium lease due to run out in 2010.  It was reported that Woodward had an option to buy the New rec from the Billings family, and would sell it fund a new 5,000 capacity stadium nine miles away (9).  Given the density of football clubs, all with strong local identities, it is perhaps not surprising that reaction was at best mixed.  In preparing these plans, Woodward felt that Thurrock Council had not been very supportive (10).

Shortly afterwards Woodward appointed manager Gary Hill as Director of Football (11), only to announce three hours later that Hill had changed his mind (12).  A few days later he had to admit that in fact he had withdrawn the offer to Hill rather than Hill withdrawing his acceptance of the post (13).

Woodward has over the last few years faced opposition and abuse from fans, never courting cheap popularity.  These confrontations led on one occasion to Woodward even threatening to take the club back to the Essex Senior League (14), a threat which has unfortunate resonances today.

By November 2007, sites were still under consideration for a new stadium, but there was talk of temporary ground-sharing (15) as the clock ticked on.

In February 2008 it was again ‘goodbye’ to a manager (Justin Edinburgh this time) and Woodward, obviously forgetting the answer to his previous rhetorical question, took over again as manager (16), even planning a long stay in the post (17).  In September he again reacted to criticism from fans, announcing that he was putting the club up for sale (18).

At the start of the following season players were forced to take a pay cut following the withdrawal of sponsorship (19), and players were allowed to leave (20).   Woodward was reported as saying the club  “would have ceased to exist within six months without drastic financial cutbacks” (21).  Following a succesful Cup run, the wages were however paid (22).  As the season progressed, players were nonetheless released (23).

At the start of this season Woodward stepped down as Chairman and Chief Executive, but remained a director (24), again citing fan abuse, although not offering a considered analysis of the causes of the abuse.  Since then there have been a number of changes at board level, Andy Swallow being progressively described as Deputy Chairman, Chairman and most recently owner.

Attempts at interim ground-sharing all seem to have come to nought, and the club has found itself facing the drop not into the Conference South, and not even into Isthmian League, the Football Association declining to allocate the club a place there.

What will happen remains distinctly unclear.  An appeal has been launched with the FA against the decision to place them in Step 5 (25), but without a ground there seems a very real possibility that no team will be turning out season.  A newly formed Supporters Trust, GAFC 1890, has weighed into the battle, but they have arrived late and face an almighty upward battle.  The Billings family had previously offered to put £700,000 towards the cost of new ground, but time is running out.

Grays Athletic offers not only evidence of the flaws in the benefactor model, but also the dangers of the separation of stadium ownership from club ownership.  Let us hope lessons are learned, and, with a will, and a massive dash of luck, they will not have been learned to late at Grays.

[The situation at Grays is complex and apparently subject to rapid change.  It has not been widely reported other than in the local press.  Any factual input as comments from informed observers on developments would be appreciated.]

GRAYS UPDATE – 18 June 2010

Mixed news for Grays. They have won their appeal against effective demotion to the Essex Premier League, and should now start in the Isthmian Premier League (1). While this solves one problem, it complicates the issue of where they will groundshare (2).

The bad news is that the club has been served with a winding-up petition by HMRC (3).

Posted in Benefactors, Football Association, Football Conference, Governance, Pyramid movement, Relegation, Stadium, Trusts | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Ups and Downs 1

Posted by John Beech on April 7, 2010

Like virtually every football fan, there is really only one football result each week that matters to me personally – I have to know it almost as the whistle blows (thankfully possible in the age that we live in).  The rest I could easily wait to read in the Sunday papers. With my particular perspective on the game, it’s perhaps not all together surprising that my focus broadens considerably once we reach that critical point in every season, the appearance of the BBC’s Ups and Downs webpage.  The financial impact of either relegation, or for that matter promotion, on a club which is already struggling can prove critical.

The financial impact of relegation is the more obvious of the two.  Broadcasting rights decrease significantly, matchday revenues (both from falling gates and lower ticket prices) decrease, and any new sponsorship deal will be at a reduced level.  In other words, the club’s budget takes a dramatic hit.  Unless players are on negative performance-related pay, i.e. contractually lower wages in the case of relegation, a demoted club is not well placed to cope in the lower league.  Even when there are parachute payments, these may already be committed to alleviating current debt problems.  If there are already serious debt problems, these will only increase.  Think Bradford or Leeds.

Promotion also puts particular pressures on a promoted club.  To compete effectively at a higher level budgets for player purchases and player wages need to be increased.  Sure, revenues will be increased, but you are hardly on a level playing field since all those clubs already in the higher division have the same order of revenues too.  The apologists for the Premier League like to put it out that the new boys arriving from the Championship have an extra £46m to spend, ignoring the fact that it is not ‘extra’ in the sense that it is over and above thye revenues of your new competitors.  What is needed in this case is rocket payments, a much more equitable idea than parachute payments, which reward failure and give relegated clubs an unfair advantage over clubs already in the division which the club has dropped to.

As with every season, many of the kind of clubs that I blog about feature on the Ups and Downs page, and their results excite me in a way they simply do not in early or mid-season.  Here then are my thoughts on this year’s crop, starting with the Conference Regionals and working our way up.

Conference North and South
Potentially coming up to this level are Nuneaton (now Town), Boston United, and Bradford Park Avenue, all of whom might be seen as rehabilitating themselves from previous financial crises, albeit a rather long rehabilitation in the case of Park Avenue.
At some risk of facing the drop are Hyde United and even Northwich Victoria.  [Club links are to previous postings on the particular club]

Conference National
Potentially coming up from the Conference Regionals are Hinckley United, and definitely coming up are resurrectionist Newport County.
Virtually certain to drop to this level are Darlington, which will only add to their financial woes.

League 2
Among the contenders for promotion for the Conference are Luton (hopefully in a stronger position that reflects the new ownership’s determination to get the club back on an even keel), Rushden & Diamonds (in trouble with HMRC as recently as last summer) and Oxford United (who see themselves as ‘transformed’ [1]).
Dropping down will almost certainly be deeply troubled Stockport, and they could be joined by Southend. Whether that would prompt Chairman Ron Martin to finally wake up and smell the coffee instead of pressing obsessively on with his ten-year preoccupation with a new 22,000 seater stadium (almost as big as Darlington’s when it opened) at Fossett’s Farm remains to be seen. He does of course have the distractions meantime of a winding-up petition from HMRC, due back in court in just a week’s time, and the late payment of wages (2).

League 1
Definitely some interesting clubs vying to gain promotion to League 1.  Notts County and Bournemouth are currently in the top three, the former being one of the most blatant cases of ‘financial doping’ this season and clearly in breach of the spirit of the mandatory salaries cap.  Both have fans who must feel badly let down by the recent run of management they have received.  Bournemouth have managed, in spite of the problems of a crippling transfer embargo, to turn out the results on the pitch, for which their manager and players deserve considerable credit.  In both cases though I would see promotion as a highly risky venture.
Comong down are likely to be Plymouth, who seem to have learned everything they know about football management from Ron Martin.

Coming up are likely to be Norwich which might encourage their sale.
Coming down are almost certainly Portsmouth, and probably two from Burnley, Hull, and West Ham.  Of these four, only Burnley seems even remotely geared up strategically to face the rigours of the drop, unless of course the mystery owner sniffing round Portsmouth turns out to be the Sultan of Brunei, a scenario which I consider somewhat unlikely.  I would guess that only Burnley’s departure might be mourned by the other Premier League Chairmen.

Premier League
Newcastle are of course already promoted, and this will prove an interesting club to follow off the pitch next season.  How this will impact on Mike Ashley’s personal strategy regarding the club remains uncertain.  Cardiff City still have serious promotion prospects, but off the pitch the focus is very much on the rest of this season – the seemingly forever toted Malaysian investment, a ‘final’ appearance in court against HMRC on 5 May, and the suggested departure of Spinmeister Ridsdale as a condition of investment.
At the top end there will be plenty to follow off the pitch before the start of next season following the generally poor showing in Europe, with Liverpool’s ‘Laurel and Hardy’ under increasing pressure (not to mention the position of their manager – I’ll leave you to think of your own metaphors from the world of entertainment).

I’ve numbered this posting ‘1’ as I plan to return to the theme at the end of the season when the certainties of promotion and relegation have been decided.

Posted in Promotion, Pyramid movement, Relegation | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

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