Sunday, 24 May 2015

Mid - Table Blues

Below is the Premier League table based on wages and it's resemblance to the actual league table is uncanny.  There are teams that have over or underachieved but for the most part the league table is an accurate reflection of a team's wage bill.

Rank League Position 2013/2014 Wages (£m)
1 4 Man United 215
2 2 Man City  205
3 1 Chelsea 193
4 3 Arsenal 166
5 5 Liverpool  144
6 6 Spurs 100
7 15 Newcastle 78
8 20 QPR 75
9 16 Sunderland 70
10 17 Aston Villa 69
11 11 Everton 69
12 13 West  Brom 65
13 12 West Ham 64
14 9 Swansea 63
15 7 Southampton 63
16 8 Stoke City 61
17 10 Crystal Palace 46
18 18 Hull City 43.3
19 14 Leicester 36.3
20 19 Burnley 25

There are a few important things to note about the above table.

1. The numbers are for the 2013/14 year and as such do not take account of recruitment and contracts that have been signed since

2. The figures quoted for Burnley Leicester and QPR relate to their last season in the Championship. No that is not a mistake QPR did manage to finish sixth in the Championship with a salary bill equivalent to 8th in the Premier League.

If we were to look at these numbers in 12 months time I would expect the rankings to be similar but Hull's and Palace's wage bills to be closer to £60m and both Leicester and Burnley would be paying considerably more. The Premier league FFP regulations might have a dampening effect on the wage spiral but given that retained profit and profit's from player sales and any growth in other revenues can fund increased wages I would be surprised if most of the club's wage bills had not risen by the time the 2014/2015 season kicked off.

One can can argue the merits of individual team's performance in relation to their wage bill (let's all laugh at QPR) but the broader trends are more interesting and explain the polarisation between the top 6 and the rest of the Premier League.

Firstly the difference between Newcastle (7th) and Stoke (16th) is just £17m or a Wayne Rooney and a Jordan Henderson. Not that either player is likely to be rocking up at St James Park any time soon but it gives a measure of the difference in wages between the clubs. In theory Newcastle's top earners will earn a bit more than Stoke's and that should be reflected in the depth and quality of Newcastle's squad compared to Stoke's. The fact that has not been reflected in the league table means that things are not quite right at Newcastle or Stoke are doing something right but the gap is bridgeable.

However the difference between Spurs (6th) and Newcastle (7th) at £22m is greater than that that exists between Stoke and Newcastle. That is the real glass ceiling whilst a long way behind their rivals for the Champion's Leagues Spurs are way ahead of the rest of the division in terms of spending power. Thus there is a cluster of clubs who are scrabbling for places in the lower half of the division with no way of breaking out and in reality not much difference in the quality of the playing squads.

Every season a team breaks out of the mid table quagmire Southampton Everton and Newcastle have all done so in recent years and unfortunately their reward for success is Europa league football. This is a huge problem because the depth of squad required for a successful European campaign alongside a Premier League campaign costs in excess of £100m. Even with the additional income that a Europa League campaign might generate those clubs cannot sustain a wage bill of that magnitude therefore they tend to regress back into the pack the following season.

Even without the burden of Europa League football it is very difficult for a club to buck the relationship between wages and league position for any extended period of time. Firstly if a group of players overachieves the most likely outcome is they regress back to their norm the following year. Furthermore the bigger clubs often poach players and coaching staff from the best of the rest and regression becomes a lot more likely than progression.

This further underlines the achievement of Southampton this season under the leadership Ronald Koeman having lost their Head Coach and 5 of their better players albeit for significant fees they managed to build on the previous season's achievements. However it is a difficult trick to turn and one that cannot be sustained forever. Les Reed the club's technical director has stated an aim of qualifying for the Champions League within 5 years. Unless something very dramatic happens on the south coast it isn't going to happen. Eventually Southampton are going to have to match the wages offered by teams with a lot bigger turnover than themselves or face continual rounds of sale and replacement which inevitably will go wrong at some point.

The majority of clubs and their fans are in the same boat stuck in desperately competitive mini-league with no means of upward escape but with the ever present danger of downward ejection. How fans feel about this varies and I think they might be summed up as

Just happy to be here

Crystal Palace,Swansea City,Hull City,Leicester City,Burnley,Southampton

Teams that either have more years outside the top flight than in it, recent experience of football in the lower reaches of the football league and near financial ruin. Generally just being in the Premier is great from the fan's perspective particularly when it is bolstered by a relatively comfortable league finishes in the case of Southampton Palace and Swansea.    

Is this it ?

West Brom Stoke West Ham Sunderland

Teams which have always lived in the shadow of more illustrious neighbours but have been in the top flight more often than not and are currently been in the Premier League for an extended period. Here there is a general sense of unease amongst the fans who probably realise their club's limitations but are frustrated by their role as the league's supporting cast.

Sleeping Giants 

Aston Villa and Everton

Clubs with big fan bases traditionally regarded as "big clubs" but simply unable to live up to their fan's expectations. The ownership at both clubs have realised that they can either manage the club within it's means or chase the dream. They chose sensibly not to go broke and in the case of Villa the adjustment has been a painful one.



Countless millions have been thrown at this vanity project. The model is totally unsustainable the ownership have grandiose plans put their money where their mouth is but the whole thing is a shambles. After four years of inflated expectations and mismanagement the club faces an uncertain future in the Championship and QPR fans must be bewildered by the experience.



After 20 years of mismanagement false dawns and shockingly a relegation, the third best supported club in the league and the 7th largest by turnover is lurching from one self induced crisis to another and the fans are not in the least bit happy. The economic reality for Newcastle is the same as the majority of clubs in the division but somehow the club has made that reality particularly unpalatable for the fans.

Managing the Reality

If seventh is the top end of most team's realistic expectations how do the majority premier clubs keep their fans engaged? While it is tempting to say look at Newcastle and do the opposite to that and a lot of it is just good PR but remember genuine progress on the pitch is virtually impossible.

1. Manage Expectations - Tough to do on the one hand the reality is not very exciting and many clubs are over achieving by just surviving in the league and fans do understand this but it does not need to be rammed down their throats. Clubs should always talk about making progress even when frankly it is unlikely and if  a reality check is required reference Man United not clubs that are seen as rivals

2. Respect the club's traditions Fan's emotional engagement with the club is about symbols and shared memories. There is everything to be gained by honouring them and very little to be garnered from changing them to try to appeal to a global audience.  Man U are a global brand with a world wide following not because they wear red but because they are the most successful club in the global TV era.

3. Value for money Ticket prices are an issue for teams that do not have a well healed following or one that is global. On the one hand a mid-table club needs to get every penny it can in to compete but it cannot offer a guarantee of success and the feel good factor that brings. In short most clubs are selling a broken dream and that cannot be sold at a premium price. Yes some fans are happy to see the worlds best players strut their stuff at their local ground but most are concerned about their team and how it performs and perpetual mid-table mediocrity is not very exciting.

4  The cups are a lifeline, Fans thrive on the excitement of cup competitions and clubs need to look beyond the apathy shown towards the early rounds (partly created by their own neglect and by the way football fans purchase football) and see the energising impact that a cup final appearance has on the mid-table clubs that make it to finals.

5. Engage fans A lot of the ill will that clubs have generated through half baked ideas could be avoided if clubs just talked to their fans and gauged their reaction. Fans might be overly wedded to their traditions and innately conservative but equally they want the club to succeed and will embrace change if it is required to move the club forward but owners need to at least try to take the fans with them. Clubs that exist in a state of perpetual war between fans and ownership seldom prosper.  

6. Style Matters Sam Alladyce and Tony Pulis must hate Swansea. Up until Swansea's promotion the the standard approach to surviving on a tight budget was a dogged defence hard work and grind out results, which was characterised by Pulis at Stoke and Alladyce at Bolton.  Swansea's emergence showed that free flowing passing football could be achieved on a budget and they became the style template that many fans aspired to rather than the more direct style that characterised many of the mid table teams in the Premier League. From a club insiders perspective survival is all that matters but fans crave entertainment and expect their team to at least to try to play decent football and ultimately fan discontent curtailed Alladyce's and Pulis's tenures at West Ham and Stoke.

7. Youth Development is absolutely key those clubs that do it well have a far better chance of breaking out than those that don't either because they can supplement their squads with home grown players or benefit from the profit generated by selling players at inflated prices to the Champions League elite. Equally fans are more likely to warm to players that have a strong connection with the club that has been established over the years that the player spends in the club's academy.  

Another Premier League season is drawing to a close and the whole circus closes down for the summer. Fans will be looking for their club to strengthen push on to the next level. For the most part it won't happen some clubs will rise some will fall but unless either one of the elite  has a complete meltdown or a club from the mid-table mix has a year of all years then the table at the end of May 2016 will look pretty similar to this years and the glass ceiling will remain intact.  

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