It’s no secret that spending has steadily (yes, with spikes) been on the up in recent seasons. Since, the turn of the millennium, foreign ownership has become more and more of a common factor in English clubs. As we all know, when the ownership of teams across a league isn’t as limited to one nationality, we are bound to see the average net worth of owners increase, just as the spending is likely to rise along with it. However, up until now, even with this truth, clubs in England, with a primary focus on the Premier League, have still managed to break into the upper echelon of their division as well as win silverware without spending big.
Fulham are probably the most recent example of a team enjoying success despite modest outgoings. This season, the Cottagers will be playing in the Europa League for the second time in three years due to their outstanding financial record, coupled with good standings in the domestic league. Other teams who’ve achieved moderate success in recent years despite ‘lower’ spending habits in the Premier League include Everton, Aston Villa and Stoke City.
Arsenal are seen by some as exemplary in this area, using a strong grass roots base, they develop players from their teens in order to save buying expensive foreign imports in their prime. The intentions of Arsene Wenger are admirable, and after much tension the North Londoners have eventually sealed their place in Europe. That being said, the team have started the new season badly including a 2-0 loss at home to the big spending Liverpool. This season’s early performances and a look at the current and recent Premier League tables begs the question: do you have to spend big to be successful in the Premier League?
This story of sport monopolization however, is now having somewhat of a ‘trickle-down’ effect on the rest of the nation. Manchester City, Crawley Town and now Leicester City are all clubs that are seen as extravagant spenders in their respective leagues, almost going to gaudy lengths of spending at times. Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool are admittedly fellow big spenders of the English elite, but also have larger fanbases than Manchester City to back up their gradual expenditure.
When the Citizens’ Abu Dhabi takeover came about in 2008, the huge outgoings were met with expressions of disbelief. The club has consistently spent flamboyantly in each transfer window since the takeover, another reason some slate the club. Manchester City achieved a tenth placed finish in their debut season under Arab ownership, but in two years, have ascended into the Champions League, a piece of success that isn’t often attributed to luck alone. For a team that was in the then-named Division One a mere ten years ago, you can understand why some may call the club a business, as opposed to merely a sports venture.
No team can be happy hanging around in mediocrity. As a manager, you want lead your team to the heights of your realm, plausible or not. As an owner, you want to either see your team succeed along with your manager, or make as much money from your investment as possible. Either way, when you’re involved with a team, progression is the objective.
Aston Villa and Everton are two teams who have hovered around the top half of the Premier League table for the past fifteen years. Each team has had their spats of bigger transfers in this time. Everton having signed the likes of Marouane Fellaini and Yakubu while Villa have brought on board Darren Bent and Stewart Downing. However, the difference between these transfer tendencies to the likes of Manchester City’s is that all four of the aforementioned transfers occurred in four different transfer windows. This shows us that, perhaps down to the capabilities of the owner, the clubs can only make a certain amount of big signings at a time. So, does this tell us that if a club of this standard is to break into success, they must emulate the spending habits of the Premier League pariahs?
Fulham, Bolton and Blackburn are three other teams that have been in the top flight for the last ten years. Until 2008, Manchester City were enjoying the same mid-table success as the trio but then unsurprisingly so, as soon as some money was injected, City began their steady assault on the title. It’s sad to think that this is the only way to crack the code and you almost don’t want to say it aloud, but football is becoming a business. Manchester City started a pattern of spending and massive bumper contracts that everyone else in their sights was forced to match, lest they be left behind.
Now, we can see that four teams in the past three years have all spent between £100m-£200m. The same four Premier League teams had spent a fraction of that between 2004 and 2007. This spike in spending can now be seen in the Championship as mentioned earlier. A second division side spending £15m in one transfer window was an unprecedented thought, but now Sven Goran Eriksson is seeking the easy route to promotion under his Thai owners. If he fails to do so at the first attempt, his job will be on the line. Due to his wages and the comfortable contract he’s sure to be on, the Swede won’t suffer too greatly, but will have picked up his wages.
Crawley Town are another example of this sort of transfer activity, and were pioneers as a non-league side to spend over £500,000 in one transfer window two years ago. The team are now flying at the top of the League Two table thanks to their deep pockets.
Football is entering a downward financial spiral. Initiatives such as Financial Fair Play are a decent start, but risk furthering the gap that is apparent already, even further. The top six in the Premier League is now established, and no team will have the opportunity to be bought out and laden with money after FFP comes into effect, because European football won’t beckon if they do. Holland and Germany are two countries who’s leagues are expected to benefit from FFP, with strong youth academies already existing. But for the world’s ‘most entertaining’ league, the sports governing bodies will have to crack down on spending on a more local scale if they are to salvage what dignity the country still has left.