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.

State of Play: Stoke City – a club in exile

STOKE CITY have been in a better place than they are today and not many people are predicting they will win promotion from the Championship in 2022-23. The “experts” believe Stoke will finish just above mid-table, which will be progress on the past four seasons and the best placing since they were relegated from the Premier League in 2018.

The current campaign will be their fifth since then, there is a danger they are getting too comfortable at that level. The pandemic hasn’t helped them, but then it has been a struggle for many Championship clubs given the trend of the second-tier clubs paying far too much out in wages in a bid to win a place in the promised land of the Premier. Stoke, in 2020-21, saw their wage-to-income ratio jump to 119%, their second successive season when player expenses went above 100%. Again, the pandemic has to be considered, but it underlines the precarious nature of football club finance.

Despite having one of the Championship’s highest wage bills, Stoke were 14th in 2021-22 and 2020-21. In their four Championship seasons since relegation, they have never finished higher and have seldom looked like promotion candidates.
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