Boxing Clever in the Championship


Whilst we live in unprecedented times and the future of football looks bleak, I’ll start this piece by saying that, disappointingly, it’s become quite fashionable on social media to have a pop at clubs that may profit from the shutdown.

The likes of Leeds and West Brom, who are destined to reach the Premier League should the season be curtailed and not declared null and void, have been somewhat unduly criticised for looking like they will reach the Premier League without another game being played.

The EFL is left with very few choices, especially given the testing processes that will need to be in place for football to return, whilst the Premier League, with its vast riches, has contracted a South Korean company to oversee its testing process to the tune of £4m, the EFL simply does not have that sort of money to burn.

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Both the Baggies and Leeds deserve to be promoted in my opinion. Both clubs have spent all but one game week combined in the top 6 all season. An impressive record, as well as them both being the best two teams on the pitch consistently throughout the season. No complaints from me. But then there’s the story of ‘little old’ Preston North End…

We seem to be the current whipping boys on social media for being in the final play-off position. Having spent over 67% of the season in the top six, it’s absolutely down to us that we’re in 6th and we have earned the right to be there as it stands. Both Nottingham Forest and Fulham have an equal record to us with twenty-five weeks out of thirty-seven and only two teams have spent longer in the top six this season; Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion.

You could argue we don’t deserve to be there, though. Our five-game form going into the lockdown sees us in the bottom four of the league. However, we’re accompanied by the team currently in seventh place, Bristol City and Lee Johnson, who simply couldn’t take advantage of our poor form and have only picked up five points from the last twenty-one available to them in the league.

The likelihood of the Championship play-offs continuing despite an early end to the season still seems plausible, given the astronomical sums of money that are involved with promotion to the so-called promised land and with us currently, despite recent poor form, occupying that final spot of the play-offs, we rightly deserve a shot at the top flight shoot-out. After all, it’s about your performance over a season that defines where you end up at the end of the season.

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Without going all #teamslikePreston, it does seem rather fashionable to have a pop at us though. Having the third-lowest income in the Championship for the 2018/19 season and spending the eighth lowest on wages in terms of accumulative £ spend, clubs must feel that ‘little old’ Preston don’t deserve to be in the top six.

However, as we’ve seen with the performance of various clubs with the “evil” parachute payments (more on that shortly), it’s not always about what you spend, but how you spend it.

The future of football does seem rather bleak. Whatever happens, we’re bound to be watching football from the comfort of our living rooms with games held behind closed doors for another six to nine months, and even then, I doubt we will have the freedom of movement that we have been so used to.

No-one will forget Covid-19, especially the thousands of lives that we have tragically lost during this pandemic. However, from a footballing point of view, the landscape has changed, in my opinion, irreversibly. Gone are the days of getting £10m for Jordan Hugill, or £8m for Callum Robinson. You’re looking at half of that, if not less, going forward.

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The inevitable salary cap, which has been needed for far too long at EFL clubs, is only around the corner and is bound to sting those who have been spending excessively chasing the dream of the Premier League.

Here at From The Finney, we were looking forward to a From the Finney Meets… episode with Kieran Maguire, author of the best selling book, The Price of Football and the podcast of the same name, unfortunately, we’ve had to reschedule due to Kieran being under-the-weather last weekend but he is well worth a follow on twitter if you aren’t already – @KieranMaguire. Anyway, I asked a couple of questions this week on The Athletic, relating to the finances of football especially in the EFL. You can read that here if you’re signed up to the Athletic. If not it’s well worth it.

The feeling from Stuart James, senior reporter at The Athletic, is that “the market will be depressed and have severe ramifications… (and) makes me wonder whether it will lead to the profit and sustainability rules being relaxed”.

The profitability and sustainability tests that the EFL have are flawed and have been open to manipulation, you only have to look at the various sales of stadia to remain inside the £39m loss threshold limit, and until the EFL clamp down and enforce these rules more stringently, there are always going to be a number of clubs that are willing to push the boundaries to try and test the EFL, its tests and no doubt be backed up by a legal team looking for loopholes.

Sustainability is a matter which has rightly come to the forefront during this crisis. A number of clubs that may be viewed as self-sufficient are spending above their means on wages just to compete, ourselves being one of them. Currently, the Championship is spending £120 for every £100 of income on wages on average, with North End being higher than this at £143 per £100.

This is clearly one area that new EFL chairman Rick Parry must tackle. Aston Villa blew £95m on wages to get promoted last year, with an income of four times the size of ours and were part of an overall £84m loss on the season. If they hadn’t gone up, the likelihood is they would have been heavily hit with an EFL points penalty and who knows what else, but as they were promoted they, in essence, got away with it.

At PNE we’ve been reliant on loans from Hemmings before he even took control of the club, and last year he made a further £12m investment through a £6m share issue and £6m loan from Grovemoor, one of his other companies under Wordon Limited.

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The un-collaborative approach to finances with the Premier League and The FA has hindered the EFL. Years of mismanagement under the stewardship of Shaun Harvey left the EFL in a complete mess, especially with the unfit for use fit-and-proper-persons test which allowed Steve Dale to commit manslaughter on a fellow founder of the Football League in Bury FC at the start of this football calendar year.

In my view, a full radicalisation of the protocols within football are both needed and warranted. Parry has to be given a degree of credit since taking the post at the end of 2019 for his handling of events thus far, especially tackling head-on the “evil” of parachute payments.

North End are one of just eight clubs in the Championship who have never been on the receiving end of a parachute payment, which I know somewhat reflects on our inability to get to the promised land. They get a degree of sympathy, however, being continually priced out of being able to be competitive in the league by what is in effect, compensation for finishing in the last three of a twenty-horse race.

It’s no surprise that the closed shop of the Premier League has been increasingly difficult to reach, but, it’s by no means impossible. Burnley, Blackpool, Swansea, Cardiff, Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Brighton all reaching the Premier League for the first time in the last eleven years. Let’s just hope we are next team to break down the door and enter the riches of the Premier League.

One of the other major issues about to gatecrash the Covid-19 party and one that will develop at a rate of knots over the coming weeks is the money from television and sponsorships. There is a large storm brewing over the Premier League owing over £300m to TV companies in money already received, coupled with the EFL’s deal with Sky, SkyBet and Screwfix, who are also looking for an apparent rebate.

The financial implications on the Premier League down to the EFL in solidarity payments, and then the EFL clubs losing sponsorship and TV money from Rupert Murdoch’s empire, I predict will be catastrophic and a ripple effect across the game not seen since the 2002 collapse of ITV Digital. Clubs, rightly or wrong, are reliant on such funding to survive, and when financially planning 6, 12, 18 months ago, no-one could have predicted this outbreak.

It’s one to keep a very close eye on with a financial black-hole on the horizon which some clubs are bound to fall straight into and cease to exist after that point. As for players, we’ve barely touched on them in this piece.

There are mutterings from the Premier League that some players are unwilling to play given the risk that playing poses to themselves and their families. I completely get that, they shouldn’t be pressured into an environment where they don’t feel safe, regardless of the money aspect which some commentators see as a plausible excuse for them to play and risk their health. Below is a video of Danny Rose talking sharing his feelings about a possible return to action.

It doesn’t help when you get some aspects of the journalist core coming out with some, quite simply, horrific pieces that stoke that particular fire. I read the headline, and no further, of a piece from a well-respected journalist this week titled “Is it fair to put lives at risk for football? On balance, yes”, to come to the conclusion that this former table tennis player should continue commenting on that sport rather than being an advocate for players putting themselves and their families at risk from this disease.

We have got a couple of players out of contract come the end of June in Tom Clarke and Paul Gallagher, I hope they both see this pandemic out and then make the best decisions for both of their careers.

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You’ve got to feel for Gally especially, with him knocking on the door of the 300 club and the season likely to be curtailed. Sentiment holds little room in football, and whilst it would be prudent to keep hold of such a talisman, at 35 years old you have to question how much more he could give.

Would you keep him for another year and get him through the 35 games needed to get to the 300 club? There’s no doubt he can still influence a game at this level.

With Tom Clarke, he’s been a great servant but for me, and I’ve said this elsewhere, you don’t get promoted with Tom Clarke at right-back. It leaves a dilemma for Tom, and others out of contract this summer, with the game unlikely to resume properly until October or November, at the earliest, in my opinion.

Clubs in the lower leagues are bound to struggle, as they rely heavily on gate receipts and club-related activities, and not so much on the TV money. But what happens to the players at that level? The estimate is that over 1,400 players across the EFL are out of contract on the 30th June, to put that into perspective, that is around 65% of all professionals within the EFL.

Not to mention the players that will be released by youth setups who would usually seek a route back into professional football via lower leagues and non-league, who have found their fate in football in an undignified Zoom call rather than face-to-face meeting given the current climate. That leads me back to a couple of our Meets episodes that we have completed recently with Will Hayhurst, which you can listen to here, and Jack King, two players who have been playing in non-league of late.

The money that players will be earning post-Covid-19 will likely be nowhere near what they will be expecting, especially in Leagues One and Two and the National League. Will and Jack both mentioned this in their chats with Jake. Jack stayed in non-league for the majority of his career so that he could work for his Dad’s business, and earn good money for doing so.

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It’s no surprise that some of those players in the lower leagues “could even end up being better off playing part-time and working (as) sadly, nowhere near enough money has filtered down the Premier League over the years to the lower levels” according to Stuart in the aforementioned piece on The Athletic.

However, as the money trickles down (or not), the landscape of Non-League football is also bound to change beyond recognition. Gone will be the days of step 3 or step 4 players being paid hundreds of pounds a week you would feel, as these clubs become increasingly reliant on gate receipts as sponsorship payments dry up. How all this ends, nobody is definitively sure.

The start date for training being pushed back by the EFL yesterday to coincide with the Premier League’s own announcement looks set to delay the planned 12th June start date for the professional game.

Will games be played, despite the fears, to appease the TV deal and the politicians who feel the return of the game would “raise the spirits” of the nation?  Or will it be null and void, a phrase which has seen its popularity explode during this crisis, mainly driven by those wanting one of two outcomes; Leeds to not get promoted, or Liverpool to not win the Premier League. Only time will tell. The future of football is rather bleak, whatever happens.