To have and have not: The unlevel playing field

Disparity in parachute payments is making it hard for clubs like Ipswich to compete
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The Independent Football

Any club receiving an £11 million bonus for their season's work might feel they have done a rather good job. In the increasingly crazy world of football finance, the reality is entirely different for the three teams relegated from the Premiership. Having failed utterly in their targets and ambitions, they will receive this reward as compensation for missing out on the even greater riches available to English football's top 20 when a television contract apparently signed by Croesus kicks in from August. The payments are called a "parachute", ensuring a gentle descent to the feet-on-the-ground world of the Football League; they would be better known as a hot-air balloon, for their capacity to propel the fallen ones back into the stratosphere.

If success is not achieved next season, a further £11m will be handed over the following year as well. It need not be necessary; of the three teams demoted a year ago, Sunderland and Birmingham have already taken advantage of a £7m leg-up to return at the first attempt. West Bromwich Albion could join them to complete a yo-yo effect that many feel will become the inevitable pattern now that these compensation payments have soared even higher. A spectacular degree of mismanagement will certainly be required in future to emulate Leeds United in dropping from the Premiership down to the third tier.

It is a depressing development not only for those like Preston, Stoke and Colchester, already on a sloping playing field after never enjoying the Premiership riches, but also for well regarded clubs such as Ipswich and Norwich, unable to get back into the big league before their much more modest parachute payments ran out. As the Ipswich chairman, David Sheepshanks, puts it: "The advantage these clubs have is a major concern to the rest of us. The only way the others among us can compete from now on is if we have very substantial support from a benefactor, or wealthy ownership. It's true that the psychological damage from relegation remains, but £11m is a huge advantage, and you'd say that yo-yo clubs will become more prevalent."

Although there is talk of a redistribution of funds from the Premier League to the Championship taking place shortly, it is likely to amount to no more than £1m per club. "Anything we receive would be more than welcome," Sheepshanks says, "because we need all the help we can get. Many people have said to me in the last few weeks how fantastic the competition is in the Championship, but that's with the parachute at £7m. The other point is that all the clubs not receiving it are loss-makers. To be in the Premier League, even at the bottom, is still a very, very profitable exercise. We're talking about £30m next season from broadcasting revenues alone, and if you can't make a profit out of that, well..."

Words fail him, briefly, until the subject of possible investment in Championship clubs is broached. Southampton, Coventry and Hull City have all been the subject of takeover talk recently, the former pair linked with foreign buyers. Could a club like Ipswich, once indelibly associated with a single Suffolk family (the Cobbolds), afford to resist such an approach?

"Foreign interest has clearly been stimulated by the new television and sponsorship revenues in the Premier League, and any Premier League club who might be vulnerable to a takeover have probably now got an inflated price. That brings the Championship into focus, and clearly the opportunity to invest in a Championship club is likely to prove a very good value-added investment. The sums required are likely to be much less; it's something I think many clubs will have to look at carefully. It's beholden on all of us to pursue ways of making ourselves stronger."

The key, investment analysts suggest, is to find a club with the potential to join the Premiership gold-rush within two or three years if given the benefit of a financial injection. Ipswich, who currently lose £2m a year, would appear to be in that category; they have the tradition and support, plus a bright young manager in Jim Magilton, and ended the season strongly enough for Derby's Billy Davies, after losing at Portman Road, to tip them as promotion contenders next time if they can strengthen sufficiently in the summer.

There's the rub. Last Wednesday, Sheepshanks was at the SoccerEx business forum at Wembley, where Derby hope to be competing against West Brom-wich or Wolves next weekend in a play-off final that is this year being labelled a £60m match. In the final session of the forum, the Premier League's chief exec-utive, Richard Scudamore, launched a vigorous defence of his organisation and all its works, insisting it was not becoming a closed shop. "Come and have a go" was his challenge to ambitious Championship clubs.

"If you think you're rich enough," it was tempting to add.