Fayed shops for glory but with no guarantee

The chairman of QPR assesses the promotion credentials of the well-heeled and the well-backed
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The Independent Football

Next weekend sees the start of one of the toughest leagues in world football. Teams will not be competing for Serie A, the Primera Liga or even the English Premier League, but for the right to be promoted to the Premier League. Such are the financial implications of success these days that the Wembley play-off final, which sees a third team join their two already-promoted colleagues, is now the most important single game in the domestic season. The significance, both emotional and financial, of this fixture far exceeds winning a simple knock-out competition such as the FA Cup, never mind the Worthington.

Next weekend sees the start of one of the toughest leagues in world football. Teams will not be competing for Serie A, the Primera Liga or even the English Premier League, but for the right to be promoted to the Premier League. Such are the financial implications of success these days that the Wembley play-off final, which sees a third team join their two already-promoted colleagues, is now the most important single game in the domestic season. The significance, both emotional and financial, of this fixture far exceeds winning a simple knock-out competition such as the FA Cup, never mind the Worthington.

To the winner the spoils - and we are talking between £20m and £40m here - to the loser nothing but another season of grinding out away wins at Grimsby and Stockport on cold winter nights.

If the bookies are to believed, the two automatic promotion spots have already been taken, with Blackburn and Fulham filling their coffers with the television revenue that flows from Old Trafford and Anfield. All that remains for the other 22 teams is the hope of being involved in the ultimate trauma of Wembley.

But should we believe the bookies? It is said that if William Hill had been running MI5, the Second World War would have been over in two weeks. However, the basis on which these predictions are made is essentially a financial one rather than a footballing one. Make no mistake; finance governs football now more than any other single ingredient.

When Arsÿne Wenger says that Arsenal can no longer compete with the top Italian and Spanish teams, what he is also admitting is that they can no longer compete with Manchester United. In the post-Bosman era, which has seen footballers' salaries multiply ten or twentyfold in a matter of three years, the ability to pay the huge wages demanded by the more talented players is now the paramount force in determining success. With United's over 60,000-seater stadium and the huge revenue generated by their commercial activities, no team in England is ever likely to be able to compete with them again.

The economics of life in the Nationwide First Division are even more complex. Clearly, stadium size and income generated from season tickets and match-day attendances vary considerably between clubs such as newly relegated Sheffield Wednesday or their neighbours United, with the ability to sell 30,000 tickets a game, and the likes of Grimsby or Crewe, who have to exist on gates of 4,000 or 5,000.

The demoted clubs lose 50 per cent of their Premier television income for the first two years. At present this amounts to some £3m-£4madditional income a year - but from next season this figure may well be doubled or trebled. At Queen's Park Rangers such a parachute payment, were we to have one, would more than double our operatingrevenue.

Any relegated club has a huge advantage, but only so long as they are re-promoted within two seasons. Sheffield Wednesday, Watford and Wimbledon will never have a better chance than the one presented by this season. For Barnsley, relegated two seasons ago, defeat at Wembley in May means they now have to adjust to living off First Division income.

Then there is the Fayed factor. What a godsend Mohamed Al Fayed has been to Fulham. Languishing in the Third Division a few years ago, they are now favourites to reach the promised land. However, no amount of gate revenue, merchandising sales or TV income can compete with a multi-billionaire who is prepared to lose several million a year in pursuit of his dream.

What counts now in this division is not the ability to sign expensive players from other clubs. Although a selling club do not mind who they receive a cheque from, the top-class players who can command hefty transfer fees have no intention of dropping out of the top flight, and they are now demanding salaries in excess of £1m a year. For a normal First Division club with a gross yearly income from all sources of around £5m, to pay this is impossible, unless you are prepared to write off losses of possibly £10m a season. However, even if we can attract such players and meet their demands, there is no guarantee of success.

One thing is certain, in this League on any given day, any team can beat another. Last season, the runaway champions Charlton Athletic lost their unbeaten home run to lowly Swindon, who at the time were already as good as relegated.

So will the moneybags of Blackburn and Fulham prevail? Surely we can expect a better performance from Blackburn this season under Graeme Souness; they are bound to be in the shake-up. Yet, despite his unquestionable abilities, Jean Tigana may find that attempting to recreate the world champions at Craven Cottage will prove difficult.

What of our chances at QPR? Despite a season wrecked by injuries, we finished last year strongly and ended up in ninth place. Expect-ations are high. We have recruited four new players, none of them a household name, but all with the ability to compete at this level. We are under no illusions that building on last year's progress will be easy. We begin with a tricky home game against Birmingham City, who we have yet to beat in the First, home or away, and who, despite that crushing play-off defeat by Barnsley, will once again be one of the teams fighting it out at the top.

The other contenders are Bolton, Wolves and Nottingham Forest who, like Blackburn, should now have readjusted to the demands, as well as the three relegated sides, all with the advantage of a Premier League squad and their parachute income.

There are no obvious candidates for relegation to the Second - and I would not like to be betting too much of the house on the top of the table. I have a hunch QPR are in for a good season. Whether we are good enough to fill one of the top two places I don't know, but right now I would settle for that nerve-racking day at the end of May, to be present at the biggest match of the season - if my heart could take the strain.

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