There is a graveyard with a difference on the outskirts of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The occupants are statues, of Lenin, Stalin and other Soviet figures whose stone images once festooned the Baltic state. After independence these were hauled down and now pockmark a park, obsolete symbols of once-dominant power.
In the absence of a revolution there is no equivalent in England, but there is in football. The Championship is a graveyard of fallen giants for whom the past was glorious, but grows ever more distant.
This week’s release of Leeds United’s financial figures, which confirmed their continued decline under a series of unloved owners, highlighted the difficulty such clubs have in adapting to life below stairs. Next season at least one, probably two, possibly three, such clubs will join them.
The focus may be on White Hart Lane this weekend but the tension will be greatest at St James’ Park, where Newcastle United host a Bournemouth side now eight points ahead of them and pulling clear of danger. It will be edgy at the Liberty Stadium, where Swansea hope to continue their escape and plunge Norwich deeper into the mire. The away end at St Mary’s will also be a nervous place, as Sunderland visit Southampton.
It is possible that by Saturday relegation will be a case of perming two from three of Newcastle, Norwich and Sunderland. Norwich, their potential limited by geography and economics, have never had major success or support, but between them the North-east duo have 10 titles and more than 100,000 weekly attendees. Fallen giants indeed.
The other relegation spot is all but confirmed. Aston Villa are at Manchester City with anger and gallows humour the anticipated mood among travelling fans. Barring a recovery to match Leicester City’s last season – and there is no indication the requisite dressing-room spirit exists at Villa Park – one of the seven Premier League ever-presents is about to taste life in the second tier.
It is unlikely to be a happy experience. The parachute payments next season will be huge, around £36m, which is more than four times the entire budget of some Championship clubs. However, although Villa have slashed their wage bill in recent years, despite having relegation clauses in many contracts they will still have to devote a large chunk to salaries, or in paying players to leave. Their current wage bill is thought to be £60-70m.
Clubs which have been in the top flight for many years – like Villa – carry a lot of costs beyond the first-team squad. One of the saddest aspects of relegation is the number of staff not involved in playing or coaching who are made redundant because of the failings of those who are. The number will be substantial at Villa Park. An outside agency has already been called in to assess staffing levels and employees warned of job cuts.
Trimming the playing staff is harder, for contractual reasons, but will be necessary. The cheap Ligue 1 players signed during the summer do not look suited for the 46-match slog of the Championship and the performances of the veteran British core have been no better. A complete overhaul is required, but is Rémi Garde, a man with no experience of the Championship and precious little achievement in the top flight, going to be trusted to do it?
After the 6-0 home humbling by Liverpool last month, Dennis Mortimer, captain of the last Villa team to win the title, in 1981, said Garde was the wrong man. “The Championship is difficult, it is not an easy league to get out of,” he said. “I always felt it should have been Nigel Pearson coming in. He was the ideal person.”
Tom Fox, the club’s chief executive, was more bullish in a recent briefing. He said: “Aston Villa Football Club is bigger than the results in any one season. Aston Villa Football Club does not go away if we are relegated. We play football next August and we hopefully do it with an organisation that is prepared to compete and to succeed and to come right back up.”
If only it were so easy. Depending on who goes the other way, Villa will join in the Championship another European Cup winner in Nottingham Forest, two semi-finalists in Leeds and Derby, and seven more clubs who have won the league title: Blackburn, Burnley, Huddersfield, Ipswich, Preston, Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves. Indeed, with Newcastle and Sunderland teetering on the drop it is highly likely that next season there will be more clubs in the second tier who have been champions of England than in the first.
Defining a “big club” is never precise and usually contentious but by most assessments there are now as many traditional big clubs in this division as in the top flight and their presence indicates how hard it is to escape. Indeed, Leeds, Forest, Wednesday and Wolves have all been in the third tier more recently than the first – and Sheffield United are still marooned in it, while Portsmouth are in the basement.
Of the clubs that went down last season (and are receiving parachute payments) Hull City and Burnley, stable outfits that have kept their managers and the bulk of their playing squads, look well placed to come straight back. Queen’s Park Rangers, after another season of upheaval, do not.
Of the trio, Villa are most like QPR. Managers and players come and go far too quickly and there seems a lack of football knowledge in the executive. Villa are arguably even more unstable as owner Randy Lerner wants to sell, and is thus reluctant to invest.
They are not, by any means, the worst Premier League team. That was Derby, who went down with 11 points in 2007-08. They have not returned. The next lowest tally was achieved two years earlier by Sunderland, who went down with 15 points. They bounced back as champions under Roy Keane. Which shows one terrible season need not be followed by another, and these things can be hard to predict.
Nevertheless, one aspect should be clear to Lerner – and the owners of Newcastle and Sunderland, Mike Ashley and Ellis Short. The fate of Leeds, Forest et al, underlines the need to come back during the three-year window parachute payments provide. Which means paying what it takes to rebuild the squad this summer.
Villa have been relegated four times. In 1959 and 1987 they came straight back, in 1936 they did so after two seasons. But it took them eight seasons to return after relegation in 1967, during which time they went into the Third Division. Sunderland have also been into the third tier and Newcastle were perilously close when Kevin Keegan rescued them. Owners beware; it can happen.