Football: Survival game beyond newcomers

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The Independent Online
Promoted one season to the elite; relegated the next. Guy Hodgson

looks for the causes of the Premiership's yo-yo syndrome

ON THE way back from Blackburn on Sunday evening the stark difference between inclusion and exclusion from the Premiership was driven home. On one road a bedraggled sign reading "Good luck Bolton" was sadly being taken down while on the M60 a car with Everton scarves draped from the windows had the word "Phew!" in the back window.

Safety and relegation; relief and despair. If you had taken a poll of football supporters a fortnight ago most would have the moneybags of Everton or Tottenham living in the reduced circumstances of the First Division in preference to Barnsley and Bolton. Some benefit it did them. As Danny Wilson put it succinctly: "All the goodwill in the world will not get you points."

There was local angst on Sunday night, but despair spread beyond the local communities of South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester (or south London in Crystal Palace's case) to everyone who embraces democracy in football. For the three promoted sides of 1996-97 to go straight back to the First Division seemed to emphasise the gap that has grown between the Premiership and the rest.

The City thought so, too, yesterday wiping around a quarter off the value of the shares in Burnden Leisure, the company that owns Bolton. That was not football romanticism speaking but cold, realistic money. Leave the Premiership at the bottom end and you are relegated in tables more pertinent than the ones that read: played, won, drawn and lost.

Look over a longer period and a pattern is emerging. Seven of the 11 teams who have been promoted in the last four seasons have returned to the First Division immediately while another two have also gone down since. Only Derby and Leicester City have survived, the latter at the second attempt, and even they were not without worries last spring.

"The first season is the most important," Colin Todd, the manager of Bolton, said last week. "It makes or breaks the ambitions of a club. Survive that and you have a chance."

So what does it take to endure beyond a first brush with England's elite? The first ingredient, without question, is money. Only Wimbledon have defied the downward pull of relative poverty over a lengthy period and they have had years of practice. Only an exceptional First Division side could prosper at a more rarefied level.

That is understood; the remedy is less clear. Barnsley spent pounds 5.5m since last summer, Bolton pounds 10.6m and Crystal Palace pounds 15.45m and still they went down. Two of the the teams just above them, Newcastle and Everton, have bankrolled their safety to the tune of pounds 50m in the last four seasons.

Which underlines that the system prejudices against promoted teams even if it featherbeds the landing of those who are jettisoned from the Premiership. Relegated teams get half the television money of those in the top flight in what is known as a "parachute payment". Last year that amounted to pounds 1.5m.

This payment, which last two seasons, automatically gives those teams who drop into the First Division an advantage - it is no coincidence at least two of last year's three relegated clubs will return next season - but the rest of the financial package is loaded against newcomers to the top flight.

Premiership clubs receive pounds 8m a season on average from television rights while members of the First Division get around pounds 800,000. That is a gigantic imbalance when it comes to buying but also means better players prefer to reap big wages in the reserves of Manchester United, Liverpool et al rather than drop a level. There are not many First Division players these days who would get automatic places with bigger clubs.

Of course, there is a difference in how you spend rather than how much. Leicester's most expensive purchase in their first season in the Premiership was Matt Elliott, a centre-back, while Derby also built from the back around Igor Stimac. Barnsley learned too late that mistakes which went unpunished in the First Division lead to goals at a higher level and it is dubious whether Palace ever took that on board.

Which, in turn, leads to the man spending the money. Jim Smith and Martin O'Neill have been astute buyers, eschewing one big purchase in favour of spreading their money over a wider area. Smith, in particular, has benefited from foreign players with cheaper price tags. In contrast numerous Everton managers have shelled out millions of Peter Johnson's pounds and got very little in return.

But you could be Alex Ferguson with the backing of Old Trafford's riches and get nowhere unless fate smiles on you. Injuries can lay waste to good teams and the market can be a lottery. Even Jim Smith says he is surprised at Paulo Wanchope's impact while Dean Holdsworth looked a 24-carat Premiership striker when Bolton bought him from Wimbledon and managed just three goals. Is that luck or judgement?

Then there is the imponderable, the bad decision. They even themselves out, it is said, although you would be hard pressed to convince Bolton supporters who remember that Gerry Taggart had a header disallowed in the very first match at the Reebok Stadium even though television evidence showed the ball had crossed the line. The opponents that day were Everton. That "goal" was the thin line between safety and the oblivion of relegation.

Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough and whoever comes up with them will need a lot going for them next season but ask a manager what he wants most and he would give you a one-word answer. Luck.

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