Act 1: A distant memory
This study into the relative fortunes of clubs that are financially stable in English football’s second tier begins at the Riverside in 2012. Wanderers, led by caretaker manager Jimmy Phillips, faced a Middlesbrough side very different from the organised defensive unit that were promoted into the Premier League in 2016. By chance, I was in the home end. Wanderers entered the season optimistic of a quick return to the Promised Land, but an underwhelming start to the campaign led to a recalibration of ambitions and the removal of Owen Coyle from his post as manager.
That Wanderers side on that day seems a distant memory, almost as if it was another football club altogether. Chung Yong Lee opened the scoring with a delicious finish over Jason Steele, but in true Bolton fashion, threw away the lead, succumbing to a second half brace from Australian substitute Scott McDonald. The result doesn’t particularly stick in the memory, nor the performance, but a comment from a Boro fan when Darren Pratley came off the bench in the second half.
“Jesus, they’ve got some squad, these lads”.
Despite us all knowing what was to come in the following years, on paper he was right.
On the bench for Bolton that day, alongside youngsters Jay Lynch and Joe Riley, were Pratley, Matt Mills, David N’gog, Keith Andrews and Benik Afobe. The academy graduates and loanee Afobe aside, the substitutes’ bench would have received £96,000 before tax that very week in wages. We did have “some squad” on paper, but it was chronically underperforming and damned expensive. The club was £182m in debt, and lost another £9.2m that very season. The club was haemorrhaging money.
Underperformance and expense are not concepts Wanderers fans have been familiar with under the “new” club that has emerged in the last twelve months. Under the transfer embargo, the wage bill is unrecognisable from just five years ago, and Phil Parkinson has maximised the abilities of the players at his disposal.
Act 2: Net spend
The concept of net spend has had footballing hipsters foaming at the mouth since Rafael Benitez’s thrifty business as Liverpool manager. Journalists were falling over one another to pontificate over the revelation that Tottenham Hotspur’s net spend between 2012 and 2017 was just £1 million for a team that had climbed from 4th to 2nd, and 20 points off top spot to just 6. Echoes of Benitez’s efforts on Merseyside were seen in the North East this season, with Newcastle United finishing top of the Championship whilst saving themselves £12.8 million in transfer fees in the process.
On the other hand, it needs to be said that football clubs are not designed to be profit making business ventures, rather the play things of billionaires and oligarchs. In the 2014/15 season, despite revenues at a record high of £3.6bn, Premier League clubs made a collective loss of £110m. In fact, since 1998, Premier League teams have only ever made a collective net profit twice (2012/13 and 2013/14).
Is the old “speculate to accumulate” theory of success in football outdated, or is the concept of “net spend” all too easily applied when it suits the arguments of its proponents? Is the Championship a division of spenders or savers, and what does it spell for Bolton’s fortunes next season if so?
Act 3: The second tier
The Championship is becoming a very strange conglomeration of teams. Last season, it was home to former Premier League shoe-ins Newcastle and Aston Villa, once-lower league underdogs such as Burton Albion and Brentford, and a whole manner of yo-yo clubs. Indeed, 17 of the 24 clubs in last season’s second tier have played in the Premier League.
Championship clubs, on the whole, are surprisingly “savers”. Though 13 clubs ran at a loss in terms of transfer dealings last season, their average spend was £3.18m. Of those that ran a budget surplus, the average amount saved was £4.37m. What fudges the numbers are the extremes in terms of financial transfer management; relegated sides Newcastle United and Aston Villa.
Act 4: A tale of two relegations
The Magpies made a net profit of £12.8m last season, largely thanks to the £85m accumulated in player sales. The sales of Andros Townsend, Gigi Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko brought in the vast bulk of that at a combined £67m. When we only consider “net spend”, we neglect the fact that Newcastle spent an astronomical £55m last term, a figure no Championship club has spent in the past.
At the other end of the spectrum is Aston Villa, the division’s most frivolous outfit. Villa made a £12m loss on their transfer dealings due to some questionable decisions in the transfer market. They received only £7m for their 2015/16 Player of the Year Idrissa Gana Gueye, who in the previous season was second only to N’Golo Kante in terms of interceptions and ground covered in the whole of the Premier League. In attempting to improve their strike force, they shelled out £32m on Ross McCormack, Jonathan Kodjia and Scott Hogan. Between them, they managed a goal every 233 minutes, and an assist every 1,281.
Of course, these are the extremes of the second tier. In fact, there are four classes of club in the Championship: the thrifty middle class, who appear to perform somewhat admirably whilst running a transfer surplus (Newcastle United, Norwich City, Derby County), the ambitious middle class who don’t mind speculating in an attempt to guarantee success (Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday), the ambitious working class sides who attempt to spend their way to safety (Bristol City, Wigan Athletic), and those clubs in relative poverty (Blackburn Rovers, Burton Albion, Nottingham Forest).
Act 5: Analysing the figures
Context is crucial in this discussion, but often left as an afterthought. Newcastle United, for example, is the division’s thriftiest club, but also the division’s biggest spenders by some £20m or so. Blackburn saved £5.5m, though spent nothing on transfer fees whatsoever.
Looking at it, both the sides promoted to and relegated from last season’s Championship ran at a surplus. Promoted sides saved on average £9.2m, but that is severely impact by The Toon Army. Brighton saved a negligible £100,000, and Huddersfield Town spent £3.7m in their quest for promotion. Wigan Athletic and Rotherham United also ran at a combined loss of £2.9m, but Blackburn’s inability to spend money on transfer fees counteracts this.
Teams that qualified for the play-off places spent £11.7m in total. Those sides finishing between 16th and 21st place collectively spent £4.2m. Though the initial figures would suggest it, the Championship is not a division where you can run a budget surplus and succeed. It similarly does not suggest that you can spend your way to the top: of the top six loss-running clubs (Aston Villa, Bristol City, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield Town, Cardiff City, Wigan Athletic), only two finished in the play-off places.
The Final Act: Forced frugality
In their return to the Championship, Bolton Wanderers will be forced into the fourth category of Championship club – those in poverty. The transfer embargo means that, in terms of transfer fees at least, the club will most likely run at a surplus. Two of those sides, Queens Park Rangers and Nottingham Forest, finished in the bottom six last season. Another, Blackburn Rovers, was relegated to the third tier.
It is with these clubs that Bolton is most closely associated. If we are to hypothesise Wanderers’ fortunes based on net spend alone, Wanderers are in for a tough return to the Championship next season.