Championship survival the short-term objective for Huddersfield Town

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN will restart their 2019-20 Championship campaign behind closed doors on June 20 against Wigan Athletic, hoping they can successfully avoid a second successive relegation. The Terriers are three points from the drop zone and have nine games remaining to save themselves, including that definite “six-pointer” against Wigan, who are one point and two places behind them in 20th position.

Another relegation would be a disaster just 12 months after the club lost its Premier League status, both financially and psychologically, but there are much bigger issues at stake for the Championship and the divisions below. Huddersfield’s owner, Phil Hodgkinson, has predicted that as many as 60 clubs could disappear if the coronavirus crisis does not end soon. Indeed, with talk of the government forbidding large gatherings until a vaccine is found, football as we know it may be some way off. This will impact broadcasters, sponsors and clubs and hit at the very financial structure of the game.

Huddersfield had two seasons in the top flight and the financial rewards of being part of English football’s elite were more than apparent in the club’s latest financial statements. The 2019-20 accounts, when they do emerge next year, will underline the cost of relegation and also the impact of the virus. They will probably not make pretty reading for most clubs.

Meanwhile, the 2018-19 financials have been published and, as always when a “small” club breaks into the upper echelons, the economic gulf between the Premier and Championship becomes very obvious. Huddersfield’s turnover in their two Premier campaigns totalled almost a quarter of a billion (£ 245 million) and they made a pre-tax profit of £ 3.9 million (£ 29.7 million 2017-18). In 2018-19, they declined slightly to £ 119.3 million of which 87% came from broadcasting revenues, a remarkably high percentage that creates a high level of concentration risk. In Huddersfield’s promotion season of 2016-17, their broadcasting income amounted to £ 7.5 million – a year later, it was £ 109 million.

If Hodgkinson’s worry becomes a reality and football is decimated by the virus, TV revenues may not be quite so generous and with that, any chance smaller clubs have of competing in the Premier – already near impossible – will disappear altogether.

Certainly, players will not earn the sort of money that even Huddersfield could pay their squad in their brief flight in business class – £ 64.2 million in 2018-19, representing 54% of income and the second lowest in the Premier. Huddersfield’s wage-to-income ratio was actually fairly modest compared to some clubs and only five clubs had a better ratio. Ten years ago, Huddersfield’s wage bill was just £ 6 million, which was still 105% of total revenues. Unsurprisingly, the wage bill for 2019-20 is higher than in 2016-17, but Huddersfield will receive parachute payments of around £ 91 million over three years.

Buying and selling players is one way smaller clubs can enhance their revenues and Hodgkinson said “we will always be a trading club”. However, Huddersfield’s profit on player sales was only £ 3 million in 2018-19, compared to the £ 60 million accrued by the likes of Chelsea. The three relegated clubs – Fulham and Cardiff City joined Huddersfield – made £ 8 million between them.  Huddersfield have never made more than £ 7 million in profits from transfer market activity in the past decade. The club did spend heavily in their two Premier seasons, almost £ 100 million, although they recouped around £ 17 million.

Huddersfield’s matchday income in 2018-19 was just £ 5 million, the lowest in the division and over £ 100 million less than Manchester United’s total, illustrating the huge imbalances in the Premier League. The Kirklees Stadium has a capacity of just 24,121 so the club’s average gate of 23,203 almost filled the ground. Huddersfield kept their ticket prices frozen for two seasons, which obviously meant they could not make much more from their home fixtures.

One eyebrow-raising aspect of the accounts is the club’s net debt of £ 62.9 million. While some clubs have higher amounts of debt – Stoke, Middlesbrough and Blackburn have over £ 100 million – Huddersfield owe around £ 45 million to former owner Danny Hoyle, £ 15 million of which is due in the summer of 2020.

Huddersfield thought they had a Klopp-lite manager in the charismatic David Wagner (he had a beard, glasses, baseball cap and a Dortmund connection after all) and for a while, he was very popular. But with Huddersfield relegation-bound, Wagner’s contract was terminated in January 2019 and in his place came another German, Jan Siewert. Huddersfield started the 2019-20 season poorly and in September, Danny Cowley was appointed as manager with a very clear brief – to save Huddersfield from relegation. Cowley’s meteoric rise has seen him take gradual steps of elevation in the football pyramid, from non-league to the Championship. When he took over, Huddersfield were next to bottom in the league, but in 31 games, Huddersfield have won 41 points and climbed out of the bottom places.

People have confidence in the progressive methods of Cowley and his brother and should Huddersfield retain their Championship status, expectation will surely rise for 2020-21. Even with the controversial parachute payments – the future of which may soon become the topic of heated debate once more – relegation will have cost Huddersfield around £ 50 million per season. The logical time to try and push for promotion is in the three-year parachute window, but in the Championship this invariably comes with an unsustainable hike in player wages. In the uncertain world that will emerge from the crisis, who will be willing to speculate on the status quo being restored, let alone an expensive shot at promotion?




Photo: PA


Real cool traders…the Cowley brothers

Cowley x 2 Photo: Press Association

THERE’S NO prizes for guessing who’s likely to pick up lots of accolades this season – of course it will be Danny and Nicky Cowley of Lincoln City, and quite rightly so.

Lincoln City have restored faith in the creaking old FA Cup and although we don’t associate the Imps with non-league, they have given the game outside the Football League a big boost.

Lincoln could win the National League and also lift the FA Trophy. Add to that their monumental FA Cup run and they are already making a bid for team of the year. And they owe much of their success to the Cowley brothers.

I first came across these Essex boys when they were managing Concord Rangers. The fact that Canvey Island was able to produce a second club that rose through the ranks hinted that Cowley had something special to offer. Then our team assistant at work told me one day that her brother-in-law was manager of Braintree Town and that the duo were “very ambitious” and “full of new ideas”. Young Sophie was not wrong.

Danny Cowley went from Concord to Braintree in 2015, signing a two-year deal to step into former West Ham midfielder Alan Devonshire’s shoes. As a Hammers fan, he must have liked that. Brother Nicky joined him as his number two. Braintree finished third in 2015-16, their best-ever placing in the National League and lost-out in the play-offs.

In May 2016, Lincoln came calling and Cowley was lured away. Not everyone was happy about this and Braintree’s chairman suggested that Lincoln were not necessarily a bigger club, but there was no stopping the brothers heading north.

But it has probably taken the FA Cup to really cement the relationship between the club and its dynamic management team. In October, just a few months after arriving at Sincil Bank, there was talk that Grimsby Town were interested in taking the Cowleys to Humberside.

What is the secret behind the success of Danny and Nicky Cowley? Admittedly, this is non-league football, but Lincoln will probably be back in the Football League come May and then the real test will begin – that’s if someone has not come in and taken them elsewhere. Why are these characters so coveted?

Danny Cowley – the last five years

    Lge P W D L F A Pts Pos.
2016-17 Lincoln City NL 34 22 6 6 67 32 72 1st **
2015-16 Braintree T NL 46 23 12 11 56 38 81 3rd
2014-15 Concord R NLS 40 18 11 11 60 44 65 7th
2013-14 Concord R NLS 42 17 10 15 58 59 61 9th
2012-13 Concord R ILP 42 22 10 10 80 54 76 4TH

** As at March 12, 2017

We’ve known for some time that the science behind the game has changed in recent years. Arsene Wenger brought broccoli to English football along with new coaching and lifestyle ideas for players. The rise of sports science at schools and universities has brought a different type of person to the game. Cowley is not the only result of a changing mindset – over at Stevenage, Darren Sarll, a product of Hitchin Town’s youth scheme in the 1990s, has started to do an excellent job at the new town club. Sarll was a protégé of Robbie O’Keefe, an innovative coach and advocate of a more cerebral and measured approach to the game, and has succeeded where bigger names like Teddy Sheringham have failed at Stevenage.

Cowley was an unknown, but it is doubtful if he will get through the season without enquiries from curious clubs looking for a different way to skin a cat. Lincoln’s chairman, Bob Dorrian, told the media in the build-up to the Arsenal FA Cup tie that he had “never seen two guys run a football club the way they’re running Lincoln City”. That “way” includes intense rather than lengthy training and intelligent use of data to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. You might expect such methods at a Real Madrid or Barcelona, but at a non-league club where resources are not exactly plentiful.

Promotion back to the Football League will probably stave off some enquiries in the short-term, but the question is, come August will Danny Cowley still be Lincoln City’s manager? At 38, he may feel he has to grasp every opportunity, but if you look at the average age of, for example, Premier League managers, it is 50. In League Two, which if he stays at Lincoln, looks like being his next stop, the average is 44. Cowley has time on his side to develop into an established Football League manager.

But if Danny Cowley is the next “bright young thing”, history tells us that promoting somebody too fast can have a devastating impact on a career. Take André Villas-Boas, who arrived at Chelsea in a wave of expectation that a fresh new talent had been unearthed. AVB may well have had something unique, but we never found out and now he finds himself it just 39, in China, undoubtedly very rich but surely professionally unfulfilled.

Conversely, football does have the habit of being impatient and refusing to wait for talent to be  nurtured at its own pace. If there is a scent of something unique about the Cowleys, and there certainly seems to be at present (you can beat one League team by sheer luck, but four is something else) somebody will tempt them with the chance to manage at a higher level. In the “here today, gone tomorrow” world of football, nothing is permanent, so taking a punt on a pair of sparky youngsters in tracksuits is not signing away the family jewels.

What would be a shame, however, was if Danny and Nicky Cowley get tempted away too soon. They have to prove themselves in the Football League and show that Lincoln’s FA Cup giant-killing exploits were not simply the romance of the competition carrying along a band of brothers led by a couple of extremely good motivators. But let’s play along here – these fellows seem different, let’s see how they fare one step up, and then applaud them as their careers continue on an extraordinary trajectory. If nothing else, their part in reminding us what the FA Cup was all about, deserves our admiration.

*Title courtesy of The Bewlay Brothers by David Bowie