Norwich City and the penalty of raised expectation

DANIEL FARKE’s dismissal just after Norwich City had secured their first victory in the Premier League may have seemed a little harsh, but it may have sent a signal that the club is unwilling to continue its recent cycle of promotion-relegation-promotion.

Norwich outspent more than half the current Premier League – £60 million – in the last transfer window and their gross outlay was three times the Canaries’ total for 2020-21. Their last Premier season, 2019-20, saw them spend just £ 8 million. Those figures tell you that expectation may just have been that little bit higher than the last time Norwich graced the top flight.

With half their regular line-up changing from 2020-21, Norwich probably needed time to gel, but 11 games into the season, just one win and two draws was the sum total of their efforts. In the past five years, Norwich’s record was the worst of all newly-promoted sides at the same stage, a dubious honour shared with Fulham in 2018-19. Just five goals in 11 represents a dire return, with three of those goals coming from Teemu Pukki.

Even in early November, Norwich’s position looks perilous and may have been worsened by the reinvigoration that will surely take place at Newcastle United. Norwich may have acquired the tag of “yo-yo club”, but settling for such a varied and limited strategy can be dangerous when things don’t go to plan. 

It’s a little like a club at the top end considering Champions League qualification as a form of honourable status, only to find it leaves you empty-handed when you slip below that benchmark. Console yourself with being a “snakes and ladders” club doesn’t look too great when you drop from being a contender and lose momentum in the Championship. 

As it stands, Norwich look destined to return to the second tier, but given they have spent big by their standards, it would represent a failed gamble, especially as the club has been quite dependent on player trading as a form of financial stability. Over the past seven years, they have made more than £ 150 million from player sales.

Farke was seen as a very human “nice guy” by many people in the game, certainly benefitting from having the likes of Jürgen Klopp on speed-dial. His record at Norwich reflected the club’s contemporary status, two Championship successes and a relegation and a win rate of 41.8%. He departed with no small amount of style, talking of the “great pride” in his time with the Canaries. He even thanked the local media for their coverage!

It is, of course, the sacking season in top level football. An international break provides some respite for club officials and a time of assessment ahead of year-end. After a lull in managerial turnarounds, 25% of Premier League bosses have been sacked in 2020-21, with Dean Smith (Aston Villa), Nuno Espirito Santo (Tottenham), Steve Bruce (Newcastle United) and Xisco Muñoz (Watford) all joining Farke in the queue for contractual compensation. There are others that are sitting in wobbly chairs at the moment, including Ole Gunnar Solskjaer of Manchester United.

Norwich, despite the financial impact of covid, which has been estimated to be in excess of £ 30 million, managed to make a profit of £ 21.5 million in 2020-21, although their wage bill, one of the highest in the Championship last season, was 117% of income. Norwich have always been perceived as a conservative club and they have made a profit in three of the last five years.

The club’s revenues totalled £ 57.2 million, a drop of 62% after their last Premier season. There was a huge dependency on broadcasting income, the £ 49 million generated accounting for 86% of overall revenues. Matchday income fell by 7.5% and commercial earnings were slightly down. A year in the Premier should, even if it ends sourly, provide the financial platform to mount a challenge for promotion once more.

What next for Norwich? The club’s sporting director said, just a few weeks ago, that the results were not just down to Farke, so will there be more changes at Carrow Road? But the prospect of another relegation may have been too much to take. The club could do far worse than make a bold statement and give someone like Emma Hayes of Chelsea’s WSL team a chance. Now that would smack of innovation. Most likely it will be someone from the usual merry-go-round of candidates. 

The roller-coaster ride of Fulham

WHEN Fulham kick-off the 2021-22 season against Middlesbrough on August 8 at Craven Cottage, it will herald the start of their fifth consecutive campaign of changing divisions. Promoted twice, in 2018 and 2020, Fulham have also suffered two relegations, in 2019 and 2021, and undoubtedly, they will be among the favourites for promotion from the Championship in 2022. Life is rarely dull in Stevenage Road, London SW6.

Fulham have recently published their 2019-20 financial statements (why does it take so long for football clubs to reveal their finances?) and although the they were successful on the pitch, they posted a pre-tax loss of £ 49 million. This should come as no great surprise as the club saw its revenues drop by 58% in 2019-20 to £ 58 million, once more underlining the imbalance between the Premier League and the English Football Club  – in 2018-19 they generated £ 137.7 million. 

Fulham may have offloaded some of their bigger earners after relegation in 2019, reducing their wages from £ 92.6 million to £ 72.6 million, but the wage-to-income ratio almost doubled in 2020 from 67.2% to an intimidating 125.2%.

The club’s bottom line was improved by a £ 25 million profit from player trading, a tenfold increase on 2018-19. Their last notable sale was Ryan Sessegnon who moved to Tottenham for around £ 25 million in August 2019.

Fortunately, Fulham have a generous, and it would seem, patient owner who has funded the club’s ambitious plans, including something of a spending spree when promotion to the Premier was achieved in 2018. Fulham spent over £ 100 million in 2018-19, the third highest outlay in English football that season, but the data-driven acquisition of mostly little-known but potential-rich players didn’t yield the envisaged success – Fulham went through three managers and were relegated after looking naïve and lacking in experience. The club is still paying for that summer of high enthusiasm and even higher hopes.

A more cautious approach in 2019-20 saw them win promotion again via the play-offs. Shahid Khan, the owner since 2013, injected £ 78 million of cash into the club in 2020, which has been converted into equity. Without Khan’s backing, Fulham’s finances would look a little scary.

But they still need to have more than one eye on Financial Fair Play. Their loss limit for 2019-20 was £ 61 million, so they were heading ominously towards that figure. However, the rules have been loosened a little around FFP due to the pandemic and will treat 2019-20 and 2020-21 as a single season and work on an average loss over the two. 

As well as relegation in 2019, the 2019-20 season was hampered by the pandemic, which meant matchday income dropped by 48% to £ 5.6 million and broadcasting revenues were 60% lower at £43.7 million. Even commercial income, which has held up well at many clubs, dropped by 52% to £ 8.5 million. Overall, Fulham’s revenues were the highest in the Championship, although Leeds, West Bromwich Albion, Huddersfield, Swansea and Stoke were not far behind. Fulham’s matchday income should increase in the near future as the redevelopment of the Riverside stand nears completion, a project that will add more than 4,000 to the capacity of the popular and iconic Craven Cottage.

But Fulham’s swift return at the end of 2019-20 should come as no great shock given their wage bill, which was the second highest in the Championship after Leeds United, who were also promoted. There are also parachute payments to consider, Fulham received £ 42 million and were one of seven clubs benefitting from post-relegation compensation.

Fulham’s status at the moment is a club with strong ownership that just cannot consolidate in the top flight. Their financial strength gives them an advantage over many clubs, but after securing promotion, they come up against opponents with greater resources and more savvy. 

Stability is needed for Fulham to look beyond one-season stays in the Premier League, which includes both income and team management, as well as a pragmatic mindset. Just a few seasons among the elite, as opposed to the current game of snakes and ladders, would make such a difference to one of English football’s most popular institutions, both on and off the pitch.

@GameofthePeople

National League beckons for Southend and Grimsby… but there’s a way back

SOUTHEND UNITED have rehired Phil Brown as their manager with six games to go this season, but whether he fancies a stint in the National League remains to be seen. Southend would appear to have one foot in the non-league structure. They have hordes of unhappy fans, an unpopular target of a chairman and they are unloved by the tax man. In these troubled times, a club with so many problems could find itself victims of a train wreck.

There has been talk of a new stadium for some years, and in November 2020, the club announced a new home would be built at Fossetts Farm with the Roots Hall site developed for housing. They’re still waiting for things to become clearer on when the project will move forward. The last thing they will want is to open up a new era with the club residing outside the Football League. Southend is a town with almost 200,000 people, it should be able to accommodate football at a reasonably high level.

Grimsby Town, another coastal club, are also in the mire and although they currently have a game in hand on Southend, they are still bottom of League Two. They are in the process of being taken over by a consortium, although some doubt was cast on the deal as one of the key members recently resigned. Grimsby have been in the National League before, but they are now approaching the end of their fifth season back in the Football League after winning promotion in 2016.

The other main relegation candidates are Colchester United, Barrow and Walsall. Colchester have hit a bad run at the wrong time, but there are increasing rumours they are about to go into administration, which may affect the relegation battle. The club have denied they are in trouble.

Relegation to the National League does not have to be a death knell, indeed it can act as a springboard for revival and a chance to reset. Clubs who have not been accustomed to winning can suddenly acquire a new habit, crowds can regain their enthusiasm and off the pitch, a club can regroup. However, if the club in question is on a downward spiral and has deep-rooted problems, it can be the start of an extended lost weekend. 

There have been a number of clubs who failed to recover from the psychological blow of losing Football League status: Boston United, Halifax Town, Darlington, Chester, Hereford United, Macclesfield and York City. Some have gone to the wall, reforming as phoenix clubs, Macclesfield Town being the latest victim. 

It certainly can take time to acclimatise, both on and off the field of play. Since 2000, only four clubs have won promotion at the first attempt: Shrewsbury Town (2004), Carlisle United (2005), Bristol Rovers (2015) and Cheltenham (2016).

There’s been a lot of churn between the EFL and National League over the past 20 years. Of the current League Two constitution, 17 have seen step one of the non-league pyramid and 11 of the National League have tasted life in the Football League in some shape or form. And of the 92 Premier/EFL clubs, 29 have modern non-league experience. 

On average, the teams that have won promotion after relegation do it between three to four years. But some find it hard to get back to where they once belonged. A classic case is Wrexham, who have now, surpriisngly, been in the National League for 13 years. 

To some, Wrexham are simply too big to be playing outside the EFL. In 2018-19, their average gate at the Racecourse ground was 5,077 – that’s higher than when they were last in the EFL. But go back 40 years and they were drawing over 10,000 – which shows you the potential of the club.

Wrexham were taken over by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney earlier this year and the duo have invested £ 2 million into the club under the terms of the deal. They tried to incentivise the players by promising bonuses if the team wins promotion in 2020-21, but that may be beyond them now. Needless to say, Wrexham may be installed as favourites for 2021-22.

Who will go up this season? Sutton United are currently top, a club that has a rich non-league history, but would be unlikely EFL members. However, it is often a club on a roll that can emerge as surprise winners. Hartlepool, Stockport, Notts County, Chesterfield, Halifax and Wrexham are all in with a shout at the top end. Sutton is the only town with no Football League heritage among the pack, but its population runs to 200,000. Close proximity to London clubs may be something of a disadvantage.

Sutton have an artificial pitch at their Gander Green Lane home, so if they do win promotion, they will have to take it up and replace it with a natural surface. The question is, can they sustain EFL football and stay solvent? If they win a place but refuse to take it, they will be penalised, but where will the logic be in ripping-up a facility that has clearly played its part in revitalising the club if Sutton United are relegated in season one? A difficult situation, especially in 2021.

Two promotion places (and relegation places) have shown there can be a two-way flow that works reasonably well. It may not be an enjoyable experience for those that fall through the trapdoor, but at least it should make clubs conservatively provision for failure, rather than assuming the status quo will never be challenged. Clubs like Luton Town, Leyton Orient and Cheltenham have all shown it can be done. As the fans of Southend, Grimsby and Colchester make their journeys for the final run-in, they may wish to take some consolation in knowing they can get back. The wheels may come loose, but it is important to ensure they don’t come off the wagon if and when relegation is confirmed. In the uncertain post-covid football environment, prudence and pragmatism will never be more important, as well as calm heads.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: Alamy