First of all I want to be really clear that what follows isn’t supposed to be an excuse, or special pleading of some kind. Abject defending aside I don’t feel that City’s performance on Saturday needs excusing – we took on an ex-Premier League side packed with players who’ve spent their entire careers at a higher level, a side that won at Old Trafford last season for God’s sake, and we nearasdammit matched them. 3-3 come the 90th minute is something to be proud of, let alone the fact that we were equal partners in the best game played anywhere in the country this weekend. I’ve never been less broken-up by defeat, and it was a long way from the sort of turgid half-game which we were losing on the hour, every hour 12 months ago, and which inspired this blog in the first place. So no: nothing needs excusing. Nothing needs apologising for.
But I do want to look at the makeup of our team, and that of the team we played. Our lot consisted of a group of players who nearly dropped out of this division last year, augmented by freebies, cheapies (Ross insists we paid Manchester City £25,000 for Greg Cunningham – however much truth there is in that, it won’t have been a stellar figure) and one “expensive” player, Sam Baldock, we were only able to sign by writing off what West Ham still owed us for Maynard.
Blackburn Rovers, however, were playing top-flight football just a few months ago. No, they weren’t playing it particularly well, and yes, they’ve lost Yakubu, N’Zonzi and Hoilett since then. But they’ve also strengthened significantly – in fact, they’re the first relegated team in ages whose post-demotion first XI, on paper, looks better than their pre-demotion side.
So this weekend they fielded a front two of £8m Jordan Rhodes and Nuno Gomes, who will have been on Champions League money at Benfica and isn’t likely to have taken a vast paycut purely for the chance to visit Blackburn Cathedral. In midfield we saw Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu playing, and playing well – another pair who will have been on significant wages, this time with Fulham, and are unlikely to have seen them more than decimated for the love of the industrial north-west. (More terrace gossip, in fact, had it that Murphy is on £50k per week.)
It’s not just about who they brought in, of course, but with vastly reduced income they’re still paying for ex-England keeper Paul Robinson, once-coveted winger Morten Gamst Pederson, and Gael Givet – originally picked up from Monaco with, no doubt, a salary package to match. Let’s assume (against all available evidence) that Blackburn are a remotely well-run club so had relegation reductions written into their players’ contracts – they’ll still be receiving well above the average for the division, and certainly more than we’re paying Cole Skuse or Richard Foster.
So the fact that they beat us isn’t that surprising. Etuhu and Murphy were the midfield partnership in the 2010 Europa League Final, for God’s sake; their form hasn’t collapsed totally in the intervening months and they’re clearly still Premier League quality. Etuhu in particular put in one of the best centre-midfield performances I’ve ever seen at the gate. Equally, Jordan Rhodes is one of the best strikers I’ve seen of late, and there’s no shame in him scoring twice against us. The fact that we came so close, and that I’d say our full-backs and wingers were on balance better than theirs, is a source of pride, as I’ve said.
The wider point is how this happens; how a team relegated in crisis doesn’t feel it needs to cut its cloth as dramatically as a team – us – starting another season in the same division. We’re always being told how insanely valuable the Championship play-off final is, so why don’t teams relegated from the top tier act as though they’ve lost the £90m West Ham are reputed to have gained by getting there?
Of course, the answer is that they’re receiving parachute payments. £48m of them over four years, to be precise. Which is lovely for them. And how altruistic of the Premier League clubs to give such a princely sum to a fallen member of their number! Obviously they get a terrible rap. They’re not as greedy as we’ve been led to believe.
Nonsense, of course; in fact, the top clubs are demonstrating yet again that rather than being a league of any kind, they’re just a squalid little cartel. Not content with cutting themselves off from the 72 clubs they were originally affiliated with in order to keep a larger share of the money, they’ve voted to make it more difficult for any club outside the original elite to gain entry, supporting their former members financially to aid their return. Aware that any of them could be next, they boost the chances of the few at the expense of the many.
Since they’re legally part of an entirely different entity to the Football League, it’s hard to see what the moral justification for poking about in its affairs is. Sorry; this isn’t the Premier League’s competition to interfere with, and if the Football League had any balls at all they’d make refusing to accept these payments a condition of entry.
Football being the joy that it is, Football League teams have stubbornly refused to roll over, and a steady stream of newbies have continued to join the Premier League and even to thrive there. The top clubs’ reaction to this, of course, has been to increase the level of the payments, presumably only planning to stop when the lower-league upstarts are kept down by the crippling weight of tenners on their broken shoulders.
I know. Football having an uneven playing field is nothing new, and it’s a theme I keep returning to. But there’s another aspect to this which ought to be at least as troubling. The justification for the payments appears to be that clubs in the top flight have far more money coming in, make commitments of a commensurate nature and therefore need to be helped to meet those commitments on relegation or risk going bust.
The problem with this argument is that it encourages exactly the sort of wild spending that’s got the likes of Portsmouth in so much trouble. Football clubs just keep going. Give them money, they’ll do what Blackburn have done, and what Portsmouth did, and spend it. In fact, they’ll spend more – Jordan Rhodes alone will have eaten up more than half of Blackburn’s payment this season. It gives them a higher credit card limit, and they’ll max it out and then apply for half-a-dozen payday loans to deal with the interest. Blackburn aren’t prudently using the payments to keep body and soul together while transitioning to an affordable squad, they’re spending them on building a new Premier League-worthy side. One suspects that this is because they know that, if they don’t go back up, £48m won’t be remotely enough, they’ll go the way of a Pompey side whose payments didn’t, in the end, do them much good. They’re stuck. Like anyone who chooses a maňana, maňana lifestyle they’re desperately hoping that tomorrow never comes. They daren’t wake up stuck in the Championship or they’ll be in terrible trouble.
The game’s custodians should be trying to dissuade clubs from this sort of absurd gamble, not put in place mechanisms to make it easier to get away with it. Sadly, while the vast wealth gap between the top divisions exists, clubs will speculate to accumulate – look at the debts Cardiff have run up going for promotion, and they were never in the elite to start with. Everything is set up to create motivation for profligacy or recklessness. All the talk may be of prudence, and FFP, but the very structure of the game militates totally against it.
Get rid of the payments. Encourage teams to save as well as spend, encourage anyone remotely in danger of relegation to build a side they can afford next season whatever happens. Don’t provide these mad incentives for failure. And for God’s sake, if you have to have an uncompetitive, predictable top flight, at least keep your grubby fingers out of our Football League before it goes just the same way.