Between £450,000 and £600,000 a week (£23.4 – £31.2m a year to you, squire). That’s the best guess of how much golfer and occasional footballer, Gareth Bale is being paid to return to the bosom of Tottenham Hotspur. Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, the Covid second-wave has scuppered plans to allow fans back into football grounds in October, with no indication of when gates might be open again. The end of March 2021 is looking increasingly likely, by which time most of the season will be over.
There’s no question that lower league clubs face an uncertain future. Just over a week ago, the EFL was describing ‘the next 48 hours’ as critical for the survival of its members. The governing body projects losses of £200m, or £22m per month, over the season if no fans are allowed to attend games in its three divisions. So that’s about £66m of additional losses if games are played behind closed doors until the end of December, £132m if supporters are excluded until the end of March.
The victims so far have been clubs that were already in financial difficulties, usually linked to ownership shenanigans. Bury and Macclesfield have already gone, with Wigan and Southend still in the mire. But the distress is now spreading more widely, and the longer fans are excluded, the greater the likelihood of other clubs being dragged down.
Premier League and EFL – the gap continues to widen
The common cry from the general footballing public is a demand for uber-wealthy Premier League clubs to ‘do something’ to help. That’s understandable when they are still splashing out on transfer fees and crazy wages, apparently oblivious to the fact that the rest of football’s house is burning down around them. The Bale situation is just another reminder that football in this country is a two tier affair. The disparity between the money sloshing around at the top of the game and the dire financial straits of many EFL clubs just seems to keep getting larger.
Consider that Macclesfield could reportedly have been saved with an investment of just £150,000 (equivalent to some Premier League players’ weekly tax bill). Just down the road, the liquidators are asking £3.5m for Wigan, which includes the stadium and training ground as well as the team, and have been quoted as saying that any price ‘north of £2m’, would probably get the deal done. That seems ridiculously cheap for a team that was in the Premier League as recently as 2013, and yet there is still a deafening silence from potential saviours. And going back to Bale (sorry Gaz), at the top end of his reported salary range, he could almost single-handedly pay the entire League Two wage bill for an entire season under the new cap.
But will the clamour for the Premier League to step in and do its bit lead to any meaningful action? I would love to be proved wrong, but sadly I fear the answer is ‘no’. Why am I so pessimistic?
No commercial reasons for the Premier League to help out
First, in the last few days, the Premier League PR machine has been trumpeting the amount of money their clubs have lost in the pandemic, with a figure of £600m bandied around. Those don’t sound like the comments of potential white knights.
Secondly, businesses don’t hand out large amounts of cash without a good reason. So we have to ask whether there are any commercial arguments in favour of a Premier League rescue package.
Some feel that part of the Premier League’s appeal to sponsors and to its global audience is that it stands atop a football pyramid, offering clubs at all levels a shot at the big time. So, the argument goes, it’s in the interest of the top teams to maintain the structure of the game as it stands.
But the ‘integrity of the football pyramid’, much like the idea of the ‘football family’, is a fantasy in 2020. In the 28 seasons since its establishment in 1992, with a total of 84 promotion slots available, only six teams who had never played in the top flight before made it to the Premier League. Bournemouth were the last, winning promotion in 2015. Barnsley and Swindon lasted one season each in the Premier League, while Wigan managed eight. Hull’s first stint lasted two seasons, with three more to come in later years. And, of course, none of those teams are still in the ‘Promised Land’.
So much for the myth of a ladder which any club, however lowly, could aspire to climb. The Premier League doesn’t feel that its value would enhanced by a Brentford (or a Plymouth Argyle, for that matter) joining its ranks.
The other potential commercial value of the EFL to the Premier League is as an incubator for talent. In a Times article last week former Grimsby player, Gregor Robertson wrote:
“If, as a supporter of a Premier League club, you see the loss of these (EFL) clubs as collateral damage in these perilous times, then remember that 17 of Gareth Southgate’s 23-man England squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia played in the EFL in their formative years.”
A great point. But if there’s one thing Premier League club owners care about less than the EFL, it’s the England national team. A more relevant stat might be that only around 30% of the players appearing in the Premier League are British. That’s not to disparage the foreign players in the Premier League – we are fortunate to have some of the world’s greatest players gracing the English top-flight. But it highlights the fact that the perceived value of the EFL or the National League to the richest six to eight clubs in the Premier League as a nursery for talent is not actually that great. The reason everyone knows that Jamie Vardy came out of non-league is because it’s an exception, not because it’s the rule.
Don’t count on nostalgia or altruism driving a rescue package
So if there are no cold financial reasons for a Premier League EFL rescue package, are there any moral arguments for opening up the chequebooks?
Unfortunately, the richest clubs, the ones who could make a difference to the survival of lower-league outfits, are the least likely to be swayed by such sentiments. Some 14 of the 20 Premier League clubs have foreign owners, and they are the ones with the biggest bank accounts. I’m not saying that these owners are fundamentally awful people (though some probably are), but the fact is that they have no emotional ties to the wider English game.
Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour, Stan Kroenke and the Glazers didn’t buy Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal or Manchester United because they got Shoot annuals for Christmas as kids and went ground-hopping round 4th division stadiums with their dads. Russian, Chinese, American, Middle Eastern or Thai plutocrats have no emotional investment in the history of the English game. They don’t go all misty-eyed at the thought of men in flat caps flocking to stadiums in gritty working class towns, like something out of a Lowry painting. Their horizons stretch to Barcelona, Munich, Paris and Milan – not Oldham, Wigan or Southend.
On that basis, why would a globe-trotting billionaire put his hand in his pocket to save a bunch of clubs from nowhere towns they’ve most likely never heard of? You don’t amass riches beyond the dreams of avarice spending money when you don’t have to.
And before anyone accuses me of promoting caricatures of ‘ruthless’ foreign owners and managers, last week Burnley’s very own gravelly-voiced man-of-the-people Sean Dyche also told EFL clubs in search of financial support to take a hike:
“If you are going to apply that rule of thumb, does that mean every hedge fund manager that is incredibly successful, are they going to filter that down to the hedge fund managers that are not so successful?”
It’s hard to know where to start pointing out the faults in that analogy, but the message is clear; clubs that are struggling financially are ‘unsuccessful’ and deserve to die. Could there be a better illustration of the commercial Darwinism that dominates Premier League thinking? Good to see you haven’t forgotten your roots, Sean. Don’t expect a warm welcome at the first EFL dinner you attend if Burnley get relegated. And, by the way, almost all of the players in your squad did come up through EFL clubs, so maybe you do owe them something.
So, we can safely say that Premier League clubs aren’t going to be riding to the rescue on a wave of nostalgia or altruism either. The fact that recent discussions between the various parties in the debate have revolved around possible loans (that would presumably have to be repaid) rather than one-time cash injections tells us all we need to know.
Distress in the EFL might not be all bad for the Premier League
There is also a more sinister possibility, which is that the Premier League might see the current situation as an opportunity to widen the gap between themselves and the EFL even further.
In mid-September, it was revealed that Premier League clubs were demanding a Championship wage cap (alongside the ones already implemented in Leagues One and Two) as a pre-condition of any discussion off financial support for the EFL.
Maybe they’re just acting in their best interests of Championship clubs by trying to stop them frittering away any Premier League cash. But a more cynical reading would be that a Championship wage cap of around £18m (the figure under discussion) would make it very difficult for a promoted club to survive in the Premier League since it would take time for them to build up their squads to a competitive level. It would also be to the advantage of clubs relegated to the Championship. Their wage bills would be much higher than other clubs in the division for at least a season as they would be given time to allow expensive Premier League player contracts to run down, making an early return to the top-flight more likely. And depressing Championship wage levels would also make it cheaper for Premier League clubs to pick off the division’s best talent.
The Premier League could finally break away
It might be stretching a point to say that Premier League owners would be happy to see lower league clubs go to the wall. But there would be few tears shed if financial chaos in the EFL moved the Premier League closer to becoming the NFL style, relegation-free, closed-shop that some crave. And there’s the ever-present threat that Europe’s top clubs will cut themselves free from their national ties altogether to join a Super League, where they will no longer have to travel to dreary places like Stoke (or the Spanish or German equivalent) on a wet Tuesday night in January. Again, a widening of the gap between the richest few at the top of the game and the struggling masses lower down would bolster the case for the elite to float off into some rarefied supra-national gilded competition of their own.
I could be wrong. It’s possible that government pressure combined with public opinion will squeeze some financial support out of the Premier League for their poorer brethren lower down the sport. But I can’t see them doing it for anything other than PR reasons, and I certainly can’t see it being enough on its own to prevent serious financial distress in the EFL for as long as football is played behind closed doors. I fear that any EFL club hoping for a top-flight rescue package will be sorely disappointed.