Football: The boom and bust syndrome

Norman Fox argues that the fear of failure can bring too high a price
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The Independent Online
When the struggle against relegation continues this week, only one of the endangered Premiership clubs, West Ham, will be re-entering the battle having thrown another million or so into one last, frantic transfer deadline-day attempt to buy their way out of trouble.

Joe Royle, at Everton, would have liked to but was refused, and so left "by mutual consent". The perils of relegation are now so great that clubs cannot afford to hold back large amounts of available cash until this late.

With television money increasing and European inter-club competition likely to expand, the income generated by the top few will spread ever more bountifully over the Premiership - but only the Premiership. Anyone dropping out faces severe financial problems, which is why most clubs begin to spend as heavily as they are able long before the final run-in to the season. West Ham themselves are a good example, yet they are still one of the most seriously threatened half-dozen.

Alex Fynn, the author of several perceptive books examining the financial background to football, says: "For the majority of clubs in the Premiership everything is coloured by the cost of avoiding failure. Clubs such as Southampton, Coventry and West Ham have been spending in anticipation of income from television, especially next year when for the first time real money will be earned. Up until this year, the maximum earned from Sky by top teams was pounds 3m. This year it will be up to pounds 6m, but next year for the top teams it will be double that and for the middle rank teams it will be up to pounds 9m. In anticipation of that, clubs have been spending desperately to avoid failure. They are the ones who are escalating the market. People have been spending money in anticipation that they will remain in the Premiership, but by this stage they haven't got any money."

In the past, relegation was more a matter of personal shame and cutting your expenditure. This season every match over the next five weeks is going to have a huge price tag. "If you are in the Premier league it's all for one and one for all" Fynn said. "Outside it's very different."

To lose a place in what is in effect already a Premiership cartel has never been so serious, which is exactly why some of the threatened managers have been even more than usually tetchy about suffering damaging results or their directors' refusal to spend any more money.

Coventry's Noel Whelan mouths the typical players' cry of "the spirit here is phenomenal", but everyone knows that behind the scenes Gordon Strachan is also typical, bawling them out with high-octane language after almost every game.

An objective view of recent form and future fixtures suggests that Coventry, who still have matches against Liverpool, Chelsea, Southampton, Arsenal, Derby and Tottenham to come, are almost beyond hope. Further bad news is that financially they are likely to suffer badly in the First Division if they are committed to paying their reported high wages.

The other two most likely to drop are Southampton and Nottingham Forest, although Sunderland have a hugely tough concluding programme. But Everton, at present lying eighth from bottom and in a dreadful run of one win from their last 12 Premiership games, are not entirely out of danger, especially as they have to play West Ham and Sunderland. The loss of Royle will probably have a further disruptive effect.

Middlesbrough, despite failing to regain the three points they forfeited for failing to fulfil a fixture, have a run-in that includes playing Manchester United at Old Trafford, but having not lost in their last five matches, they are clearly at last benefiting from their heavy investment programme.

Last season, of the three clubs eventually relegated - Bolton Wanderers, Queen's Park Rangers and Manchester City - only City plunged heavily into the last-minute market by spending pounds 1.4m on Mikhail Kavelashvili from the Georgian club Vladikavkaz. At the time City, not in the bottom three but heading that way, were only two days away from a crucial game against Bolton, from which they gained only a point. The last throw of the dice was too late, but there has rarely been much logic behind City's gambling.

Bradford insisted that when Bolton bought Gavin Ward for pounds 300,000 on last season's transfer deadline day they had a clause in the contract saying that if Bolton avoided relegation they would have to pay another pounds 100,000 - no such luck, but another indication of how sharp the less well-off clubs need to be if they are to survive as, increasingly, the rich receive further riches and the poor simply face the receivers.