Watford, Bournemouth and the dangers of the step up
For anyone with a passing interest in football it’s hard to forget the events of 12 May 2013. The playoffs-a time of the season that perhaps more than any either distil the ingredients which makes football so engrossing-drama, excitement, unbridled joy and ultimate crushing despair. In the 2013 Championship semi-final between Watford and Leicester City all of these factors were played out over a thrilling last 20 seconds. Leicester were awarded a penalty and Anthony Knockeart stepped up with the opportunity to secure Leicester’s place in the final, something the Frenchman must still have nightmares about. A Manuel Almunia double save and Troy Deeney counter attack goal meant it was Watford who took their place in the final, before eventually losing out to Crystal Palace.
Fast forward to this season and Watford have just booked their place in the Premier League while Leicester are entrenched in the relegation dogfight. The benefits of being one of the 20 clubs involved in this promised land of profit are staggering, each year the figure touted for gaining entry into the Premier league seems to inflate more and more, becoming so large and abstract one can struggle to even view it as real money, like bank bail outs or levels of country debt.
However for many clubs, the temptation to sip from this golden chalice negates any consideration of the potential poison awaiting them.
The road back to the Premier League is by no means smooth. The lower leagues have become littered with examples of those who let a bright future dim their present. Of the three teams relegated last year, only Norwich seem to have been in any way prepared for life in the Championship – and indeed only as a result of the impressive Alex Neil’s appointment saving them from mid-table obscurity. Cardiff meanwhile have derived more excitement from the colour of their kit than from any football that’s been played in it, while Fulham came far closer to double relegation into League One than they would deem comfortable. Wigan and Blackpool’s relegation into the third tier, so soon after their own stay in the Premier League, highlights that parachute payments are by no means a certain protection against a freefall down the league.
For some clubs, relegation from the top tier of English football is a disappointment, and as shown by the examples above it can be hard to motivate players and fans alike for the fight in a gruelling Championship schedule. For others however, relegation can be a disaster.
At no club is this perhaps more evident than with Portsmouth. Only seven years ago, Portsmouth were FA Cup winners and hosts to the likes of AC Milan in European competition-they now languish in League Two. Pompey’s downfall was so archetypal it reads like a Greek myth, the hamartia of lofty ambition leading to their ultimate downfall. It seemed their propensity for high profile signings (Peter Crouch, Sully Muntari, Jermaine Defoe) overwrought any consideration of whether they could actually afford them-eventually they couldn’t. What followed was a series of late wage payments, administration in 2010 and a succession of relegations. Not so much play up but pay up Pompey.
Alas, Portsmouth did not have to look far to see a warning against the dangers of chasing the Premier League dragon too vigorously. Leeds United, once powerhouses of English football and 2001 Champions League semi-finalists found themselves around £79m in debt in 2003. Peter Risdale’s tenure as chairman saw the Yorkshire club borrow huge money in order to attract players to Elland Road-ironically the exact same players wholesaled in order to stabilise the club’s finances. The club was soon relegated to League One and even now seem a long way off from a return to the top division. Ultimately in a bid to solidify their position as a top Premier League club, they were almost liquidated.
Make no mistake about it, earning a place in the Premier League is huge for fans, players and owners alike. The recent TV deal has rising to an eye watering 1.5bn from next season. One only has to look at the scenes at Dean Court as Bournemouth, a club faced with an exit from the football club in 2008, all but secured their own place in the top tier. Indeed, you can forgive the misty eyed short-sightedness that comes as a result of this accomplishment, the desire to secure your club’s place as a permanent fixture in perhaps the most celebrated league in world football can outweigh even the most sensible of budgets.
Football is not synonymous with looking backwards. The next game, the next signing, the next step forward dominates it’s attention. However for any club looking to shoot up the footballing ladder, it would be wise to keep one eye looking behind them. In football, those who ignore history are not just doomed to repeat it, but to become it.