Four and a half years ago, 14th August 2010, Blackpool walked out at the DW Stadium newly promoted, and about to face Wigan in their first Premier League fixture. Two hours later, they’d put four past Chris Kirkland and were back on the M6 having started their campaign in style.
The fairytale wasn’t to be, and come the end of the season Blackpool were relegated by a point. Wigan eventually succumbed two years later, but not without a famous FA Cup win in the process.
Fast forward to today and Blackpool are freshly relegated again, this time to League One, while Wigan are manager-less, eight points from safety, and run by a 23-year old chairman.
They are joined by fellow strugglers and sometime Premier League compadres Fulham and Reading towards the foot of the Championship table.
Fulham, once home to Edwin van der Sar, Louis Saha, Dimitar Berbatov and a statue of Michael Jackson, now find themselves 20th with just two wins from their last ten.
Reading, who followed a record-breaking 106 points in the Championship with an 8th-placed finish in their first ever top flight season, yo-yoed before now finding themselves 18th, also with two wins from ten.
It’s a familiar story, not limited to these four clubs – the Icarus flight into the heat of the Premiership. The club builds something, fights, achieves, reaches the crest of the arc, begins to fall, and breaks apart.
Wigan, Reading and Fulham have all changed leadership at board level since their heady days, and this weekend Blackpool fans staged a protest against the ownership of the Oyston family.
They are each at around the same stage in the process, and a look at Leeds or Portsmouth shows where the path can lead. Portsmouth battle to avoid dropping out of league football and Leeds, while they have experienced a degree of stability and been able to begin to rebuild in recent years, still feel like a club held together with parcel tape – one stiff downpour away from coming apart completely.
It may have taken 40 games to materialise, but Blackpool’s fate was surely sealed before the season even started. Just four wins all season so far, an inevitable outcome for a team whose squad, when it assembled for pre-season, contained just eight contracted players – none of whom was a goalkeeper.
Twenty-seven players left Blackpool over the summer, including Tom Ince – a prized possession allowed to leave on a free. It was an impossible situation for first Jose Riga and then Lee Clark, and the supporter protest focussed on the club ownership – amid allegations that corners were being cut and the club run on a shoestring while the owners extracted what money they could. A total of £27.7million has been loaned by the club to its parent company – the reverse of the usual story.
So, is the Premier League to blame for the situations at its former member clubs, chewing them up and spitting them out?
The Championship Play-Off Final is often cited as having the biggest prize in football, a 90 minute showdown which opens the door to the riches of the Premier League – with its TV deal, high sponsorship value and high attendances.
But the fall is hard too, and clubs are wont to overstretch in order to reach the promised land. Parachute payments, intended to soften the landing for relegated clubs, can act to deepen the divide between the haves and the have nots, or further warp the already twisted finances of clubs tied in knots to achieve beyond their place, driven by the aspiration of fans or ego of owners.
One need only look as far as Reading – a club well run by chairman John Madejski for the better part of twenty years, bought by Russian billionaire Anton Zingarevich in January 2012, promoted to the Premier League that May, with that the wage structure changed, parachute payments disappeared into financing debt and tax bills. The club was recently fined £30,000 for the involvement of Vibrac, a finance company based in the British Virgin Islands.
Football clubs, like all other businesses, can be victims of mismanagement, or find themselves falling on hard times. But the environment in which they operate, particularly those who find themselves frequently occupying the no-man’s land between the top and second tier, is more unforgiving than most. It is a large gulf to bridge, requiring a commitment of resources which can stretch clubs to breaking point.
Only the Premier League has a big enough cash float to make this process less traumatic, it owes it to these clubs to share the wealth around.