It’s the common cliché of most pundits over the past 10 or so years; top clubs don’t value the domestic cups of their countries, especially in England. Whilst the FA Cup and League Cup certainly can’t compete with the Champions League in terms of financial reward, they certainly have prestige and history on their side. Question is, do most sides actually respect this? Are these cups actually relevant anymore?
Well, definitely for any football fan, these cups are vital signs of success for their clubs. If they are from the lower leagues, the glory and memories of even being matched up against, let alone beating, one of the so-called ‘top sides’ could be the highlight of their season, or for a number of years. This is without even mentioning the financial benefits of reaching the 1st, 2nd or in particular 3rd rounds for non-league clubs, as they could draw a big name and get a televised tie, with potentially club-saving amounts of money. For example, Exeter City were on the brink of administration after relegation to the Conference National in 2003, and were relying on supporter investment until January 2005, when they got drawn against Manchester United in the FA Cup 3rd round. As a result of this big tie and their 0-0 away draw, they gained £653,511 of gate receipts from a 67,511 attendance at Old Trafford. They also earned further income from a televised replay at home, which they lost 2-0, but still gained recognition and vital funds to wipe out its debts and sustain development for years on.
Despite all the lower league heroics and numerous upsets over the years in the FA Cup, very few shocks occur in the latter stages, ultimately resulting in the history of winners. In reality, 11 of the last 15 FA Cup winners have finished in the top three of the Premier League that season, proving that success on all fronts depends on the budget of a team, whether they have the richest owners and continual European qualification. There are of course anomalies to this rule; for example Wigan Athletic in 2012/13, which was their last glory before two relegations in the next two (and the end of 2012/13) seasons, proving they didn’t have a sustainable business model. This result is paralleled in Portsmouth’s FA Cup success in 2007/08, after which it is well reported that they went into administration and currently find themselves in League 2, less than 10 years later. So success only really works if it is backed up with sound financial planning, which is the only way any team is going to win the competition in our era of highly-valued continental competition.
But this obsession with Champions League success is what has led to a lack of interest from the big clubs in the FA or League cups, because they don’t need or prioritise the possible £3 million or so just from the FA for winning it after joining in the 3rd round, let alone gate receipts. This money, or any fraction of it, might be life-changing for a lot of clubs across the country, but the sheer big-headedness of the top five or six clubs in the Premier League means this money or the glory of the cup is irrelevant to them. This is why we see fringe or youth players being given a run out on FA Cup weekends or League Cup Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
But the thing is, even these big teams’ reserves are predominantly made up of non-British players, which is unbelievable considering the academies of these clubs are meant to represent the talent of the local area, not of countries thousands of miles away. Take the example of Manchester City, who have been lauded for their use of 19 year old striker Kelechi Iheanacho this season, who was born and raised in Nigeria. He has had his opportunity over local players released in the last season such as Devante Cole, who very publicly stated that “It is very cliquey at City. They’d speak Spanish on the training pitch.” He also stated that when “They started buying foreign boys for the academy all the English lads got pushed to one side. As you got older, you realised you wouldn’t get a chance of progressing no matter what you did.” This is an absolute disgrace from a club that claims to represent its local area, showing just how far foreign football culture actually affects our clubs, especially the mega-rich ones. It is a complete opposite of the Athletico Bilbao model, one I will likely focus on in a later blog.
Ultimately, it is not the heart or belief in a team that wins competitions like the FA Cup these days sadly, but it is the millions spent on a worldwide Galactico-style squad assembly technique. Manchester City have shown it, Arsenal have shown it, Chelsea have, Manchester United have and so have Liverpool. It is no strange coincidence that these teams have been continually winning the FA or League Cup for the past 40 years, it is because they have always had the financially capabilities and support. When the BBC use the tagline “Anything can happen” with their FA Cup coverage, it is just out of hopeless romanticism that they do so, because throughout this season, the biggest shock we have seen is a full-strength Oxford United beat a mostly second-string struggling Premier League side in Swansea City. If that is the best we’ll get, it will be a bad reflection on the BBC’s marketing team, and a shockwave to the FA. They will surely have to impose wide-scale changes to squad rulings at some point, with more English and British youth having to be supported, rather than reckless millions spent on imported talent. If clubs run by billionaire global tycoons are allowed to do whatever they like in examples like this, the chances of our National side with dwindle completely in years to come, ruining Greg Dyke’s aims of a 2022 World Cup win.
After all, look at the number of cups and leagues Barcelona have won over the last 5 seasons with their policy of about 20 high-level players mixed with between 5 and 10 local youth players. This results in a fair representation of Catalonian talent on a world-class level, which is amazing for their development, whether they end up staying at Barça or going on to play elsewhere, they are making positive moves to help young players at the club. I definitely believe this method can work with English clubs, as a little belief in hometown potential can go a long way in someone’s career, just look at the examples of Piqué, Iniesta and Xavi at Barcelona, where would they be without trust and opportunity.
Making the move to install new rulings by the FA would go a long way to improving the competition of English clubs in the Champions League, as it is proven sides with more home-grown talent are more successful, for example Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich, who have all reached finals or won in the last three years. Meanwhile, Manchester City had just three English players in their squad this season (Delph, Hart and Sterling), all of whom weren’t even from City’s academy. If we make it as hard as possible for clubs to continue in this way, we will definitely see more success for our national side with highly skilled, more competitive players in the future. It should be right at the top of the FA’s agenda, as it is a serious problem in the game right now, one that simply has to be sorted as soon as possible. All of that just because of how ‘big teams’ treat the FA Cup. So yes, our domestic cups are very important today, much more relevant than most people could imagine, as they are truly critical to the success of football all across England.
It’s a debate that has been waging on for years now, the question of which league is superior in both world and European football. Well, money certainly has a part to play in the decision, that’s for sure. As I saw the news of Deloitte’s annual Football Money League on Thursday (21st January) I was amazed by the unthinkable figures of football economics in a technologically advancing world. Billions across the globe follow big leagues such as the Premier League or Liga BBVA, often being the only available football on televisions in some areas. This alone shows how far football has come in the last 50 years, but is it really a good thing for the sport? Do leagues have to keep competing against each other for viewing figures?
To begin such an extensive quest for answers, you have to look at it simply. Clearly society’s change in the past half century has affected the game, as everybody is more open to spending more, whether that be on players, stadiums, wages or even ticket prices. This spending has made these leagues the envy of all businesses, who want to market themselves alongside such a worldwide sport. This has certainly made the sport more available, but it doesn’t seem so real, it is much more cash-driven. Sport is there to be played and enjoyed, so is all this commercialism and sponsorship right for the heart of the game? I don’t believe that it is, and there is no good reason that so much money should be thrown around in such a basic human game, it is honestly ludicrous how football has evolved.
Football used to be the game of the working class city men, representing the municipalities they were born and raised in, amateurs playing it for the love of the game. Now, even players in non-league, supposed to be semi-professional, can earn up to £750 a week in the Conference Premier, compared to an average of £480 a week for the average British worker, considering they earn £25,000 a year. This is how deep money has seeped into the English leagues, helped in no small part to the unbelievable £5.14 billion spent between Sky Sports and BT Sport on Premier League live coverage for just three years up to 2019. Reportedly, the league and its clubs had no intention to spread this money out towards grassroots football until persuaded to, which just shows how far the game has come and how self-centred these teams are. This is exactly how clubs are falling by the wayside at amateur level, because their finances are not strong enough to support any failure. If one of the Premier League’s claims to being the biggest league is being the richest, you can seriously see the heart of football being lost there.
Of course, Real Madrid has twice broken the global transfer record over the last seven years, but that is not to say Liga BBVA is the richest league. These deals are mainly thanks to the continued worldwide appeal to sponsors of Real and Barcelona, rather than league funds. Last year, Spanish league rules were changed, removing the privileges of Real and Barça getting around half of the individually negotiated television right funds, meaning smaller sides can start to see a fairer playing field. But these funds are by no means anywhere near on par with the Premier League. So what is that attracts stars such as Messi, Ronaldo, Bale and Neymar to La Liga rather than England?
Well, apart from them being the best sides on any FIFA game in the last 15 years, historically the two dominant Spanish clubs have been the two must reputable and financially dominant teams in the history of football. Due to their worldwide dominance, they still are according to the latest Deloitte Football Money League figures. Real Madrid’s 2015 revenue was a staggering £439 million, despite not winning a trophy, and Barcelona raking in £426.6 million, aided by the marketing power of their MSN strike trifecta. Apparently next year’s list, though, is set to be dominated by Manchester United, as their achievable Champions League stability and Adidas sponsorship income is set to be the driving force behind their rise. Their shares on the New York stock exchange are helping investors come in from all parts of the world, and soon, without any trophies to speak of, they will steal top spot on this list. Football is often a strange thing.
But this is where the success of the Premier League comes into play. As seen perfectly this season, it is a much more open league than others in Europe, where you can expect Barcelona, Bayern Munich, PSG, Juventus and Porto to win their respective leagues. Who, on the other hand, could’ve predicted the reigning English champions, Chelsea, to be in 14th place in late January, 19 points behind last season’s Christmas basement club Leicester City? West Ham, Stoke and Crystal Palace are stronger Europa League contenders than Liverpool or Everton, and all of last season’s promoted sides are currently outside the relegation zone. Nobody who could’ve foreseen such results last August, and anyone who has to predict a league like ours has a nearly impossible job.
This is what (ironically) consistently, year on year, makes the English Premier League the best in the world, not for its money or players, but for its stories and history. It could be argued that this is caused by shared televisual income between clubs, allowing Leicester, Watford or Bournemouth to spring plenty of surprises. Then again, judging by the 5-1, 6-0 or 4-0 successes of Real, Barça and Juventus respectively last week, I don’t think shared income has had much effect in Europe’s other leagues for the continual victims of such continental giants. I hardly think teams like Levante, Carpi, Hoffenheim and Guingamp will be able to turn around their fortunes just as quickly as Leicester and challenge for their league’s title next season. But who knows, a city that was more famous for crisps than football last year have done it, so why can’t anyone else?
Everybody loves an underdog story, especially in the case of football. Non-league minnows are the best example of this, but not all are gaining their recognition and success fairly. Take the case of Eastleigh, who last weekend earned themselves a 1-1 draw and replay against debt-ridden Championship side Bolton. When you look behind the quagmire of a winter pitch, the dozens of volunteers and the record crowd of just over 5000, they are a club who are blessed with amenities way above their level. Their chairman Stewart Donald himself revealed that he had injected £3 million of his own money into the club at the start of this season, which is unbelievable for any other club at this level, bar maybe only Forest Green Rovers.
The point I am making is that these supposedly ‘small’ clubs at non-league are presenting themselves as honest, equal clubs to others in their divisions, when they fully well know they aren’t. They are creating a sloped playing field (just like the ill-famed pitches of other non-league clubs) in their favour by buying success, not necessarily earning it. Personally, I cannot admire the success of clubs like these, as eventually the supporters are being the ones let down, as they are told their club can shoot up the leagues, but realistically the crowds cannot compete with others in the league, and the club’s turnover is heavily reliant on the chairman’s money to keep in the black. This is how so many non-league clubs have fallen over time to rising debts, notably Rushden & Diamonds, Hereford United and Darlington F.C.
I believe that just like I mentioned in my owners blog, directors of non-league clubs are just as susceptible to the wild and unsustainable promises of rich businessmen as the league clubs, no matter their belief they are closer to their community. The facts show that they are risking the stability of their hometown club by making deals with these seemingly trustworthy individuals. The series of events leading to short-term success at these clubs seems to strangely coincide with those currently at Bournemouth, who are relying completely on their Russian billionaire owner Maxim Demin to keep them afloat. This is amid the £16 million worth of signings of a new strike partnership in just two days, which seems surely unmaintainable with their income, including an 11,071 attendance against West Ham. This was higher than only four of all 24 Championship team’s last home attendances, where players are being transferred for free transfers to the rare £9 million spent on Andre Gray by Burnley, for example, which Bournemouth bettered despite their lower gates. Even Eddie Howe, who has masterminded the club’s survival and rise, revealed that the spending was “not a comfortable feeling” for him.
Another issue I have is the favourable coverage these well-funded non-league clubs actually get, in a world where realistically small-time teams are very unlikely to get any exposure. Salford City showed this from their BBC Documentary and FA Cup game in last autumn last year, where their story was heralded as that of part-time unlikely heroics, when in reality they had former professional players and a much larger budget than any other competitors. Sadly journalists and broadcasters often overlook the backgrounds of these clubs and singularly focus on the rise of teams such as Eastleigh, Salford or Whitehawk, who I will focus on later. The serious question is should clubs who have significant financial advantages over others in their division really get any more privileges?
I cannot ever be envious of teams who have the fortune to be heavily invested in, mainly because these problems have occurred on a slightly smaller scale at my hometown club Lewes FC. During the noughties, they had been bankrolled to several consecutive promotions by wealthy local businessman Martin Elliott, including reaching the then-named Blue Square Premier in 2008, one step below the Football League. It was at this point that the board sacked (infamous) manager Steve King, mainly due to his lofty ambitions outweighing the finances. Once we were in this league, we found out the hard way that such a meteoric rise wasn’t sustainable, and this will be the unfortunate reality for teams that do risk it. Today Lewes are bottom of the Ryman Premier League, three divisions below League 2, but are safe in the sustainability of our over 1000 fan owners, with the 4th highest average home attendances despite our lowly position.
Meanwhile, Steve King is now at Whitehawk FC, enjoying the sort of finances he demanded to have at his disposal at Lewes years ago. He inherited a team which had already gone from Ryman League South to the Conference South in the two seasons from 2011-12, and went about assembling a squad with a budget that wouldn’t be out of place in League 2. This includes captain and former Crawley Town player Sergio Torres, ex-Stevenage left back Lee Hills and Arnaud Mendy, previously a Guinea-Bissau international while at Derby County. All this with the 3rd lowest average attendance in their league (338), lower than Lewes in the division below (408). How are they meant to survive sustainably? Chairman John Summers told newspapers he sold his Bentley and two boats to pay for the club’s ambitious goals, which proves they are not going to keep up their goals forever, and one day their motivation, barring on greed, will be their downfall. No need to have fast cars or yachts to be an owner of Lewes, though.
Last season in our league, there was a tight battle for the title between two completely contrasting Kent teams, Margate and Maidstone. Margate was a club with a budget largely inflated by their chairman, chasing promotion with an average attendance of around 500 to 600. Maidstone, on the other hand, were a self-made club, set up with a 3,000 capacity stadium, complete with 3G pitch and strong reserve and academy sides, producing talents such as Chris Smalling. They regularly pack out their ground with an average attendance this season of 2,222, double that of the following team in the attendance table. You notice the difference between sustainability and recklessness? Earning success and buying it?
I personally believe that in non-league football, if you have everything in place; community links, a constructive board, promising academies, facilities, loyal fans, competitive players and a respectable manager, you can’t go far wrong. A rich man cannot buy you all these, but he can certainly try. After all, what can go wrong? Just ask Lewes. Or Rushden & Diamonds. Or Hereford. Or Darlington. Luckily enough for some of these clubs, they’ve had a rebirth. Others may not be so lucky.
As I alluded to in last week’s blog, owners are more and more commonly imprinting their control on the club by sacking numerous managers. This week has seen Rafael Benitez sacked as manager of Real Madrid, continuing the increasingly popular procedure of sacking the most vulnerable and brave men in the business, the ‘gaffers’, after the slightest drop in form. With the ridiculous chopping and changing process in modern football, you have to ask yourself, are managers honestly given enough time in the job these days?
Benitez was the innocent victim of a murderous cull directed at managers these days by the media, who can often be the tipping point in the decision of impatient but ultimately money-dictated owners, such as the afore-mentioned Massimo Cellino. Even Florentino Perez, the President of arguably the biggest club in the world in the shape of Real Madrid, has an unbelievable record of 14 managers in 16 years, bold enough to sack some of the biggest managers in the world early, with Fabio Capello, Manuel Pellegrini and Benitez all given less than a year each. Success is hardly to be expected when star managers are not given enough time to stamp their authority on the squad with tactics and signings (although transfers were often planned by Perez himself anyway). Even before Perez, Real have been made infamous for their pursuit of success by sacking their managers, with 62 having made their way through the revolving door in the club’s 106 years with professional managers.
Surely all these managers can’t have been sacked just for results, though? Considering the impressive record of continual success at the world-famous club, results cannot have been the reasoning behind the board statements and the glum-looking faces trudging out of their former offices. Sure, some had resigned from their roles, but others have either had their relationships with the board deteriorate, lacked the support of the fans, some even having been sacked prematurely according to the statisticians. Excuses have been thrown around many times by clubs the world over, but managers face the reality of harsh sackings and uncertainty over their future as soon as they go into the job. The ones I personally don’t have sympathy for, though, are the individuals who work under notoriously impatient owners, Chairmen such as that man Cellino again, Vincent Tan, Roman Abramovich or Tony Fernandes.
The particular reason the Benitez story was shocking, at least on the level that a Real Madrid sacking can be, is that they were not even struggling. There were no signs of breaks in the squad, like there have been before at the club, as Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema and most top players were all on top form for the club. He surely hasn’t underachieved at this point of the season, standing 3rd in La Liga, and only four points behind rivals Athletico, having the best gal difference of +29, and qualifying top from a tough Champions League group with Paris St. Germain with 16 of a possible 19 points, and a G.D. of +16. They were knocked out of the Copa Del Rey, but through no fault of Benitez’s own, rather the administrative staff as Real were disqualified for fielding an (unknown to them) suspended Denis Cheryshev against Cadiz. At any club other than Madrid, Benitez would’ve been praised for his results (apart from the 4-0 thumping from Barcelona), rather than ungratefully sacked after a gutsy 2-2 10-man draw with a revitalised Valencia side. It is completely ridiculous act to dispose of somebody so well-respected and previously successful within about six months of his tenure. Even if he fell out with the board, surely they could’ve forgiven him and had faith in his ability to fulfil his promise of trophies, which I fully believe he would’ve done. Surely this will go down as one of the most unjustly premature reigns in the world of football.
Unfortunately, this issue isn’t singularly the reality to Real Madrid or Leeds United. A mere 22 of the total 92 clubs in the top four divisions in England, or 23.9%, have kept the same manager for 2 years or longer, with only 5 of those being in the Premier League. This only goes up to 45.6% when you consider managers who have been in the job for more than a year. This sad statistic is the result of the power of football fans, who are world-renowned as being fickle, and all too often as critical and impatient as the billionaire owners at the top of the club. They have a lot of power on Twitter to voice their opinions and criticisms of the every movement of Pellegrini, van Gaal, and Wenger et al. The media hear them and are furiously refreshing social media to pick out their favourite controversial comments, which are made into back-page headlines the next morning, putting more questions to the owners. Where would you see this in any other profession? People who don’t even know you calling for your head after a few below-par performances, it’s a ridiculous result of social media on a commercially-orientated sport.
Studies into the success of managers in accordance to their time in a job have been numerous, but the most in-depth analysis was carried out by Stefano d’Addona and Axel Kind of the University of Rome and the University of Basel respectively. Their studies showed that on average, there were 78.5 forced successions (sackings, not resignations) in the top four divisions of English football every year from 2000 to 2008, compared 24.7 from 1950 to 1959. Personally, I would lay the blame at the rise of the media, as rumours can spread quickly and a single result can immediately put the pressure on even the most successful manager. The average probability of a manager in the lowest performance quartile being sacked every season has risen dramatically as well, with 21.1% average from 1950-59 and 64.9% from 2000-08, showing that managers are far easier to fire these days as a result of increased pressure from impatient fans and the media. This statistic proved truthful from the recent sacking of Jose Mourinho from Chelsea, despite the fact he had won the Premier League only seven months earlier. This tells us that his sacking was simply based on the results from August to December, a four month period, which isn’t long enough to adapt to any job, and is barely enough time to get your feet under the desk.
To conclude, though, I would reiterate the old saying ‘patience is a virtue’, and honestly believe that more chairmen should heed this advice in their decisions. Unfortunately, money talks for owners and whilst immediate success is the ideal for any team, some have paid the price for pursuing it over stability, including Portsmouth, Fulham and Blackpool, who have been through a number of managers over the years following their setbacks in the Premier League. A lot can be learnt from the systems of Arsene Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson, who have both shown that big clubs should support their current staff in the belief that success will come, rather than aimlessly fire and hire managers. After all, just admire the legacy and success of Giampaolo Mazza, the former San Marino international manager of 15 long years. Oh wait…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!