Drop zone: three from five will go

FEAR OF FALLING: Five Premiership managers are trying to avoid demotion to the Endsleigh League, a decline that dramatically reduces gate receipts, commercial income and TV revenue.
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There will be moments at Highfield Road this afternoon when Ron Atkinson and Ray Wilkins will catch each other's eye and, briefly, remember better days chasing trophies at Old Trafford. Then they will turn again to the task in hand, that of lifting their respective teams, Coventry City and Queen's Park Rangers, out of the relegation mire.

Both have been relegated before, Atkinson with Sheffield Wednesday six years ago, Wilkins as a young player with Chelsea in the Seventies, but the impact of those relegations is nothing to what it would be like this time around.

That is because relegation carries a greater penalty than ever before. As the gap grows between the Premiership and the First Division, so does the cost of the drop.

"When we were relegated last year it wiped the thick end of two million pounds off the revenue account," said David Sheepshanks, chairman of Ipswich Town. "Half of that was lost gate receipts, half was commercial income, the Sky TV money and so forth."

The calculations at Selhurst Park were even worse. "It cost us three million," said Ron Noades, the chairman of Crystal Palace.

The bad news for their counterparts at Coventry and QPR, Manchester City, Southampton and Bolton, the clubs under threat this season, is that the price of failure is about to spiral.

The crux is the Sky TV deal. It has a year to run but an early renegotiation is anticipated. "I expect they will sit down this summer and the new deal will be worth a 100 to 120 million pounds," said Noades. "That is five million pounds a club. Anyone who goes down this season is kissing goodbye to four million on TV income alone. With gate receipts and other revenue they will be losing five million."

The current Premiership television deal is worth pounds 1.5-pounds 3m per club (the money is merit and appearance-linked). The current Endsleigh deal is worth less than pounds 500,000. The Endsleigh League have already signed a new deal (with Sky) which will push television income to pounds 750,000-pounds 1.2m for First Division clubs next year but, as Sheepshanks notes, "it will in no way make up the shortfall with the Premiership."

Ipswich, like all relegated clubs, are cushioned by receiving half the base sum (about pounds 500,000) from the Premiership as well as Endsleigh TV money. But as this expires after two years, during which the clubs in the Premier League have been getting even richer, an instant return is imperative. Four clubs have bounced straight back in the last five seasons, one of them Crystal Palace two years ago. But, of the 10 that failed to do so, only Middlesbrough later got up. Notts County and Swindon even went down again while seven remain in the First Division.

"If you fail to get straight back then you have real problems," Noades said. "You have to decide when you go down if you can afford to keep what you have got. If you can you should be able to go back up. If you have to sell players it becomes very hard."

Having kept most of their side in 1993, and gone straight back as champions, Palace sold the bulk of the team last summer. Some players wanted to go but, said Noades, sales were also forced by the bank.

"They reduced our overdraft facility by pounds 3.7m from pounds 6.7m. We had to sell to meet that and to cut wage bills - unless you do you are paying Premiership wages on Endsleigh income. Some of those Premiership clubs must be crapping themselves. Coventry bought two players I could not afford to pay."

Coventry are one of only two clubs never to have been relegated from the top division. At the other extreme, Birmingham and Leicester have gone down nine times with Manchester City in danger of joining them.

For clubs of reasonable, but limited resources, such a yo-yo existence is increasingly likely. "I can see the same three clubs going up and down year after year," Noades said. "The Premiership clubs will be gaining so much income they will be able to cream off anybody of any ability in the lower divisions. Their squads will get bigger while the quality of lower division players declines. Any club that does go down and keeps its players will go straight back up as long as it is not suffering some kind of internal turmoil."

A look at this year's First Division suggests the trend has already started. It may be open but it is not very good - 16 different clubs, two-thirds of the division, have filled the first three places at some time during the season. In the Premiership only seven clubs have done so. "People say we would not survive if we went up but we would have a different team then," Noades said. "With our new income level we could buy three of four players."

They would need them. If Bolton are relegated it will mean that, of 26 teams promoted since 1987, 15 have been relegated within four seasons. Ten will have gone straight back down (including six of the eight teams promoted through the play-offs). The only team promoted through the play- offs to have survived more than three seasons is Blackburn, and they spent millions to do so. "All the teams that have come up and been successful have spent money," noted Scott Sellars, who was twice promoted and is now with Bolton. "Blackburn and Newcastle did. Middlesbrough spent enough to keep out of trouble." Middlesbrough have spent pounds 10m.

Palace, like the other clubs who went straight back (Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham), do have the potential to generate decent income. Those who have not regained premier status have tended to be smaller clubs - Luton, Oldham, Millwall, Charlton - clubs whose days in the top division already seem an aeon away.

As a small-town club Ipswich are keenly aware of the need to enable such teams to compete. "We have taken a leading role in trying to persuade the Football League to talk to the Premier League about narrowing the gap," Sheepshanks said. "Otherwise clubs will yo-yo."

"Communities like Stoke, Sunderland, Ipswich and Norwich have good populations and support. Their fans have the right to support their club in the top league if their club gets it right on and off the field. That club should be allowed to be competitive. At present it is not a level playing field. I am all for rewarding success with merit payments and television appearance money, but not at the price of penalising failure. The basic subsidy should cover more than 20 clubs.

"Half the Premiership clubs agree - the bottom half. Those which have flirted with danger themselves."

The thought will certainly cross a few chairmen's minds today, not that they will be able do anything about it now. At this stage, it is down to the managers, the players and luck.

"Luck plays a part," Atkinson said, "but the most important factor is the mental toughness of your players. Sometimes your hero is someone you never expected it to be. This is a massive game for me and Ray. We will both be hoping we are the one commiserating the other at the end."