The vicious cycle in English football

The camera panned from an elderly man doing the typical dance/seizure that fans tend to do when they’re on camera, to the Bent brothers, high-fiving and hopping on their toes. Alan Pardew stood on the side-line, stern but focused, his shiny locks not yet fully develop to ‘silver fox’ status.

This was a club steeped in tradition on the brink of relegation. Seven consecutive years in the premier league were to be ended by Tottenham, by a Dimitar Berbatov who would later go on to have the mobility of a wardrobe, all be it a clinical one.


But on this day, Saturday 5th May 2007, he received the ball with his back to goal at the half-way line, flicked it around Talal El Karkouri, burned the high-pressing Charlton back-line for pace and slotted the ball into Scott Carson’s net and sunk the proverbial knife into Charlton Athletic’s heart.

After relegation there were rumours of a foreign takeover – which never happened – and, in 2008, a Dubai-based investment company did try and purchase the club, but this too fell through.

Darren Bent left to join the same club which confirmed Charlton’s place in the second-tier of English football  in a £17 million deal. Alex Song, Scott Carson (both on loan), Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and many more left.

Their sponsor Llanera declared bankruptcy during the season and Charlton themselves declared losses of £13 million for the financial year of 2008. In November of that year Pardew left by mutual consent. Charlton would suffer a fate that many before and many after them will succumb to. They were relegated again, to League one.

Consider this. In the last 11 years, of the thirty-three clubs relegated from the Premier League to the Championship, eleven have gone on to be relegated to League One. If there is any statistic that points out the unsustainability of many clubs in England, it is this one.

Charlton’s current CEO is Katrien Meire. She holds a Masters of Laws and an LLM from University College London. She spoke at the Web Summit in Dublin this week, and told of her goal of a ‘sustainable club’.

On average clubs, who gain promotion have wage bills of around £20-30 million, she said. Charlton’s currently is around £11 million, including all staff.

Last season ‘The Addicks’ finished 12th. Eighteen points off Ipswich Town in sixth and a play-off spot, 19 points ahead of Millwall in 22nd and relegation.

They are currently second bottom of the Championship and second favourites almost everywhere to be relegated, at a price of about 4/5. Third favourites, as it happens, are Bolton, who themselves were relegated from the Premier League in 2012.

Promotion seems to demand investment and even if that pays off, relegation then leaves clubs in a financial perilous position. Clubs break the bank to get promoted; invest even more to try stay up and often fail, thus falling down a division and left with massive overheads, lost gate receipts and TV rights in the process. It’s a vicious cycle.


The aristocracy at the top table are relatively safe with seemingly limitless backing. But the sad truth of the current English model is not international ineptitude or unrelenting disappointment in Europe – It’s that currently, for any club that doesn’t have a rich investor the future is bleak.

Of the 82 clubs that stretch from the Premier League down to League 2, it’s difficult to (generously) name more than fifteen who are safe from this fate in the short to medium-term future. Four have the luxury of unlimited wealth – their backers are welcomed with open arms, benefiting from huge state sell-offs in their own country; or implementing laws in their homeland that sees the ‘crime’ of homosexuality met by a punishment of death, but these series issues are swept under the carpet by enormous transfer budgets.

The true reality of English football is that for the overwhelmingly majority, to be sustainable is to be mediocre. The old joke goes that the best way to make a small fortune with a football club is to start with a big fortune, but this only tells part of the story. The current cycle of promotion then relegation actually leaves clubs in a worse position.

It is like an overpowering hurricane, tearing through south-east London, destroying the valley and uprooting at one stage much-hyped but now forgotten English strikers like Bent and Hasslebank on its way.

The small sign of encouragement that financial fair play brought has been eradicated with the decision to loosen certain rules. Ambiguous loopholes offer teams an opportunity to prove they are not “gambling on success.” As a result of the elites exaggerated spending, those below spend to compete and so on and so on.

Almost a perverted version of the capitalist model, all its unpleasing aspects laid bare. This is English football. This is what it is now about.

The Author

Maurice Brosnan

Freelance journalist, many sports. Master of all trades, jack of none. Podcaster with The 16th Man. Writer for Pundit Arena, contribute to Connacht Tribune.

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