Midlands early season gloom continues

THE bottom end of the Premier League is currently dominated by the Midlands, that area of England often overlooked when it comes to the battle for major honours. Leicester City have provided the most glorious moments in recent years, winning the Premier in 2016 and FA Cup in 2021, as well as enjoying a decent Champions League run in 2016-17. But this season, Leicester are struggling and sit one place off the foot of the table. Moreover, their manager, Brendan Rodgers, has been under pressure after some disappointing performances.

Leicester’s 2016 title win was a remarkable achievement, but such is the nature of the Premier League, it was always going to be difficult to live up to, especially as they lost some key players from that team in the immediate aftermath. Leicester had to wait for five years for their next taste of glory, winning the FA Cup for the first time after a history of near-misses in the competition. Leicester’s Premier triumph was a one-off, a moment in time when a team of journeymen produced a series of outstanding results, combining a strong team ethic with the element of surprise. It had happened before in football, notably in 1955 and 1962 with Chelsea and Ipswich Town respectively. To some extent, Nottingham Forest in 1978 was another case of unexpected over-achievement.

It was widely believed that Leicester would fill the place vacated by Arsenal and Tottenham in the race for Champions League qualification. For two seasons, they finished fifth, but they tailed-off in 2021-22, finishing eighth. While they lost ground, the two north London sides regrouped and are stronger than they were in 2020. Leicester have effectively lost the initiative.

The Foxes went into the 2022-23 season with a degree of uncertainty hanging over them. Their owner, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, was badly affected by the pandemic owing to the near collapse of all tourism, and Rodgers was unable to trigger a squad rebuilding programme. The sale of Wesley Fofana for

£ 70 million to Chelsea looked like some form of desperate measure. The pandemic was tough on Leicester and they lost over £ 100 million across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. At the same time, the club’s wage bill reached a record £ 192 million, 85% of income. In 2019-20, with revenues down to £ 150 million, the wage-to-income ratio was actually over 100%.

Leicester began the season dreadfully and have still only won one game. They still have plenty of talent in their squad and it is difficult to see them staying in the relegation zone. But there may be sacrifices before they begin to seriously recover.

Leicester’s only win in the Premier so far was against fellow midlanders Nottingham Forest, an emphatic 4-0 victory at home. Forest are bottom of the league and have struggled to acclimatise after winning promotion. Away from home, they have scored once in five games. It was always going to be tough for the club after such a long time out of the top flight and even though they spent £ 145 million on new players, some of whom seem a little over-priced.  There was talk of Forest replacing their manager, Steve Cooper, who had been widely praised for getting the club back to the Premier League. However, at the start of October, Cooper signed a new contract that keeps him at the City Ground until 2025. Such a move underlines the long-term view being taken by Forest’s owner Evangelos Marinakis but football can be a fickle game. Clearly, the blame for Forest’s start to the season is being directed elsewhere and there were reports that Marinakis was looking to dispose of the people behind the club’s summer recruitment programme.

If Cooper appears to have been given time to get things right, there are growing fears for the immediate future of Aston Villa coach Steven Gerrard. Villa under Gerrard have failed to impress, his 37 games have yielded a win rate of 32% and they have scored an average of 0.55 goals per game. This is the record of a manager sitting in a very precarious seat. Many Villa fans have turned against Gerrard, which must be a big blow to a manager that probably has his eyes on the job at Liverpool in the not-too-distant future.

Villa remain a big club and their average gate of 41,500 this season highlights their huge potential. In fact, the city of Birmingham is grossly under-represented in English football’s upper echelons. It is hard for them to compete with the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool, but Villa should be better off than they are at the moment. Their revenues for 2020-21 totalled £ 183.6 million, which represents a mid-table position among their Premier League peers. One area that needs looking at is the club’s relatively poor record of generating profits from player sales. In 2020-21, for example, they made just £ 1.4 million. They made an overall pre-tax loss of £ 37.3 million and they have consistently lost money on a seasonal basis. But they have a low level of debt compared to many clubs. Although nobody would surely entertain it, creating a super club in England’s second biggest city may only be possible through merging Villa with their rivals Birmingham.

Wolverhampton Wanderers have found themselves on the downside of a cycle this season. After two seasons finishing seventh in the Premier, their last two campaigns have been less successful and in 2021-22, they were 10th. They lost their highly-rated and popular manager, Nuno Espirito Santo, to Tottenham and have just sacked his replacement, Bruno Lage. While Wolves said farewell to their coach with compliments aplenty, the decline at Molineux dates back to last season. In their last 14 games of 2021-22, they lost nine and looked quite ragged in the final weeks.

They have yet to replace Lage, but Nuno Espirito Santo has been named among a list of possibles. Like Villa, Wolves have the potential to be European contenders. They made a healthy profit in 2020-21 of £ 144.9 million, but their accounts did include an exceptional item of £ 126.5 million, which represented a waiver of debt owed to the club’s Chinese owners, Fosun International.    

How much of the current malaise afflicting midlands football can be attributed to the financial impact of the pandemic? Arguably very little as over the past decade, only three top six placings have been achieved by the region’s clubs, all by Leicester City. Most of the “big six” clubs in the Premier saw their revenues fall between 2019 and 2021, although Manchester City’s actually experienced an increase of 6%. Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham saw their income drop by around 20%, while Chelsea and Liverpool’s earnings dropped far less. Conversely, Aston Villa’s revenues went up from £ 55 million to £ 184 million, due to promotion, but Wolves and Leicester enjoyed rises of 13% and 26% respectively.

Football has always been a cyclical game, with teams building, peaking and declining in a relatively short space of time. The polarised modern game has created clubs that are almost immune to such cycles. Hence, it is hard, almost impossible, to break into the top bracket. Certainly the gap is daunting – since Leicester won the Premier in 2016, the margin between the league champions and the midlands’ top club has been 38 points, more than 12 wins’ worth of points.

The power in English football can be found in London, Manchester and Liverpool. In terms of population, these are three of the top five cities in England. Birmingham is the only city with more than one million people outside of London and it is the second highest city by gross value added. London may have more clubs, but Birmingham has one eighth of the population. Leicester is in the top 10 of cities by population.

There are clubs outside the Premier who might claim they deserve a crack at Premier League football – Stoke City, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Derby County are all names that have rubbed shoulders with the very best. At the moment, the Midlands hopes rest with Wolves, Villa and Leicester, but the problem is, they may forever be in the shadow of the “big six”. It would be nice to think that might change, but at the end of the day, it is all about money and the clubs from the heart of the game’s roots are trailing behind the standard bearers of corporate football.

The Premier League new boys – how long does the honeymoon last?

THE New season is well underway and the teams that won promotion to the Premier League at the end of 2021-22 have experienced mixed results. Taking the history of the competition as a benchmark, there is a good chance one or two promoted clubs will suffer relegation in their first campaign back in the top flight. In the last four seasons, seven of the 12 clubs have gone down immediately, in 2022 it was Norwich City and Watford. The other new boys, Brentford, finished 13th and won many friends for their approach and attitude.

Staying the course is hard for the new boys, but if they can survive in year one, they will have benefitted from the financial rewards of Premier League membership and be in a better position in year two. In 2019-20, for example, Fulham, Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion were all promoted. All three clubs generated turnover of between £ 53 to £ 58 million. Their wage bills were unsustainable, with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion paying out 125% of income and Leeds a very concerning 144%. This scenario is not unusual by any means, but having pushed the boat out to reach the Premier, wages went even higher in 2020-21 for the three clubs, but given the significant rise in income, less of a burden. However, for Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, the jump from Championship to Premier proved too much once more.  Fulham’s revenues totalled £ 116 million, but this was still way below the level of even mid-table clubs like Everton (£ 193m), Aston Villa (£171m) and Newcastle (£ 140m). Given that Leeds are a bigger club in terms of support than their two promotion partners, it was no surprise their income was as high as £ 171 million. Fulham, who have been going through a yo-yo existence for the past five years, returned to the Premier in 2022-23, hoping they finally acclimatise in the right way.

The average lifespan of a promoted club is 3.8 seasons – 14 clubs in the Premier constitution have been promoted to the league at some point.

Nottingham Forest’s return to the Premier League will be welcomed by many but they may find life a lot more challenging since 1999 when they were last in the division. When Forest were relegated, their turnover amounted to £ 17 million, just one million lower than they generated in 2020-21. This certainly emphasises the difference between life in the Premier and a place in the Championship. Conversely, while wages in 1999 were £ 11.8 million, Forest were paying more than double their revenues to their squad in 2020-21. Forest do have good support and they appear to have a very promising coach in Steve Cooper, but will they invest the money they will receive in 2022-23 wisely? They have spent heavily in the summer, more than £ 100 million, and their outlay is higher than Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle United (source: Transfermarkt). Their new signings include Jesse Lingard, a free from Manchester United, Union Berlin’s Taiwo Awoniyi for £ 18.5 million and Neco Williams from Liverpool for £ 18 million. Awoniyi scored for Forest against West Ham to record their first victory of the season.

Forest’s eagerness to bolster their squad does highlight that clubs are well aware they have to strengthen rather than rely on the players that won promotion. But it has to be executed sensibly. In 2018, Fulham acquired almost a new squad and it was clear they hadn’t done their homework particularly well. They plummeted like a stone in the Premier in 2018-19, much of their squad assembled using the so-called moneyball strategy. However, they are back again with a decent group of players that may just hold their own after three promotions and two relegations in five seasons. Fulham cannot be accused of not giving their fans a roller-coaster ride in recent seasons and for six years, they have moved from division to division. They have generous ownership which has enabled them to pay top wages when they were in the Championship, but there may be more expectation this year after continued investment on and off the pitch.

Fulham have been fairly aggressive in the transfer market over the past five seasons. Between 2018-19 and 2022-23, their net spend has been the 10th highest in English football at £ 188 million. On a gross basis, they have spent £ 242 million. Much of their hopes rest on striker Aleksandar Mitrović, who has disappointed in his previous Premier campaigns. In his last two Championship seasons, Mitro has netted 69 goals in 84 matches, but in 2020-21, Fulham’s previous Premier outing, he scored just three times in 27 goals. If nothing else, he has a point to prove and at 27, he should be at his peak. He’s started the season well. Fulham sold a couple of players, notably Fabio Carvalho to Liverpool, but they’ve also acquired João Palhinha from Sporting Lisbon (£ 20m) and West Ham’s Issa Diop (£ 17.8m).

AFC Bournemouth’s past labelled them as a small entity, but they are also a progressive club and before relegation in 2020, they had spent five years in the Premier League. The sceptics didn’t really expect them to return in a hurry, but they are back. Prior to promotion in 2015, Bournemouth’s turnover was a mere £ 12.9 million, but by 2017, this had jumped to £ 136.5 million. During their first Premier stint, Bournemouth’s wages also climbed dramatically from £ 29.6 million in 2015 to £ 111 million in 2019. Relegation meant the club had to regroup and as income fell to £ 72 million, wages also halved. In 2020-21, after four years of losses, Bournemouth made a profit of close to £ 17 million. While winning promotion was credible, Bournemouth face a challenge to compete at a higher level and there are question marks about their ability to survive. Their owner, Maxim Demin is a Russian-born businessman and a UK citizen, hence he was not sanctioned by the British government like others. Bournemouth spent around £ 27 million ahead of 2022-23 on two players, £ 15 million on Feyenoord’s Marcos Senesi and £ 11.9 million on Marcus Tavernier of Middlesbrough.

Since the Premier League was inaugurated in 1992, the average lifespan of a promotion club is 3.8 seasons. Fourteen of the current 20 clubs have won promotion at some point (just six are ever-presents – Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham) and the current longest run is Manchester City, who have spent 21 seasons in the Premier since returning. West Ham and Southampton are in their 11th season, while Crystal Palace are on 10.

Whatever happens to the new boys, some clubs, such as Fulham, Bournemouth and in past seasons, Watford and Norwich, have shown they are resilient after relegation and bounced back. Obviously helped by parachute payments to some extent, it also shows that with determination and focus, relegation can be dealt with.