Premiership spending: Thriving on a shoestring

For more than a decade Charlton have defied the odds and, after struggling last season, have started this one with four straight wins. As they prepare to entertain Chelsea, Paul Newman reveals the secrets of the Premiership's best-run club
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The current Premiership table, moreover, shows that, as usual, Charlton are getting more things right than wrong. They lie second behind Chelsea, their visitors on Saturday and the only other club with a 100 per cent record.

As he looks to the future, however, Murray talks in cautious terms. He fears Charlton will never win the Premiership as it is currently structured and worries about the gap between the division's biggest clubs and in particular the "league of one" forming at the top.

"What we need to do is to avoid losing on Saturday," he said yesterday. "To think we can stay in second place is unrealistic, but we've always said that outside the top four there's not a huge amount of difference between the rest. We have to aim at being top of that 'second division' within the Premiership."

While Saturday's game is a sell-out, season ticket sales at the Valley this season are down by 1,500 to fewer than 19,000. "It's the first time in our experience that sales have fallen," Murray said. "We wrote to our season-ticket holders to ask why. There were three reasons. Firstly, they were disappointed by our poor end to last season and felt it was a rather uneventful year for us. Secondly, only nine of our 19 home matches kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday, which meant that some people weren't able to attend every match.

"Thirdly there was the Chelsea factor. Journalists say that it's better that there are now three clubs at the top rather than two. We don't see it that way. There's now only one club at the top. Our supporters feel the Premiership title is cut and dried already.

"You also feel that each year the three clubs that come up will be the ones most likely to go down. For the first two or three years after you go up you're just happy to stay there, but once you've been there for five or six years fans start wondering: 'Where do we go from here?' We were really chuffed that Everton finished fourth last season, just to make a change."

Murray believes the Premiership's biggest problem is the uneven distribution of revenues. It started with home clubs taking all their gate receipts, accelerated with the payment of some Sky television money according to league position and has been reinforced by Champions' League fees. Last season Chelsea earned nearly £50m in TV revenue (£30.7m from Sky and £18.8m from the Champions' League), £31m more than the Premiership's lowest earners, Southampton.

"I was always taught that sport should be played on a level playing field," Murray said. "If it's about business and nothing to do with sport then we don't need to worry. But in that case let's not call it sport.

"Giving away clubs 25 per cent of the gate receipts was one way of keeping a level playing field. Another way of doing that is by the distribution of television revenues, which we regularly raise at Premier League meetings.

"In 1992, when the Premiership was set up, there was a very fair system: 50 per cent of the revenue was split between the members and relegated clubs, 25 per cent was merit money and 25 per cent went in TV facility fees. Now we have three or four clubs who get into a fantastically lucrative Champions' League and that has distorted everything. People now say that if you're not in those top four places it's the same as getting relegated.

"We've got four clubs who are just going to go further and further away from the rest. I think three of those four will always be the same and it will just be a question of who will fill fourth place.

"We have no answers, but we're trying to raise a debate. A year ago when we raised this there wasn't much appetite for change, but in the last 12 months we've had clubs ringing us saying they think this should be on the agenda again."

Murray acknowledges that it would be impossible to redistribute Champions' League money, but is advocating a change in the Sky distribution. "Maybe it should be 75 per cent spread evenly between the clubs and 12.5 per cent as merit money and the same for facility fees," he said.

Does Murray think that the Premier League's best chance of a secure future would be if the big clubs left to play in a European super league? "Well it would mean that the likes of Charlton, West Ham, Aston Villa or Tottenham could win the league again - which is what brought us all into football in the first place.

"I wouldn't want to give the impression that we want the big clubs to leave, but it would allow us to dream again. Our dream at the moment, realistically, is to remain in the Premiership, have some great matches, and hopefully one day get to a cup final. Maybe one year in five you might do an Everton and get into the top six.

"People say we need all this Sky money to pay the players' wages. No you don't. We need to pay those big wages because other clubs pay them and we need to be competitive. If the big three went away and the TV money was halved, the average Premiership salary would be £10,000 a week rather than £20,000 a week. Fine. What are these players going to do? Are they going to go and get jobs as postmen instead because they're 'only' going to be paid £10,000 a week? Of course they're not."

In the meantime, the likes of Charlton spend heavily in order to compete. Last season's poor finish persuaded Alan Curbishley, the manager, that he had to make changes, particularly to his goal-shy attack, and that he needed a bigger squad to last the pace in the Premiership.

In the summer Darren Bent was signed from Ipswich for £2.5m and has responded with five goals in the first four matches. Newcastle's Darren Ambrose joined for £1m, while the other most significant arrivals have been loan signings, Alexei Smertin (who will not play on Saturday as part of the deal agreed with Chelsea) and Jonathan Spector from Manchester United.

With nine arrivals and two departures, the wage bill has risen more than Murray would have liked, particularly when soaring pay levels have all but wiped out the profits which used to provide Curbishley's transfer fund.

"Last year we only broke even," Murray said. "The basic problem is that you can't have your Danny Murphys and Alexei Smertins on £10,000 a week, which used to be our pay ceiling. We finished seventh in the Premiership two years ago, after which our fans were saying: 'Where do we go from here?' If we're to progress again we have to start buying better players."

Team building has been mirrored by impressive work off the pitch, which Murray has made a point of funding out of the £25m of equity which has gone into the club since the return to the Valley. The stadium has been steadily enlarged (there are plans to expand the capacity from the current 27,000 to 31,000 and eventually to 40,000) and training ground facilities upgraded.

At the same time Charlton have built on their reputation as one of the best community clubs. The excellent relationship with their fans includes a place on the board for a supporters' representative. One of this year's innovations, the "Valley Express" scheme, offers fans coach travel to the Valley from all parts of Kent for just £5.

The gospel is also being spread even further afield. Charlton have launched academies and coaching schemes in China, the United States, Spain, Gibraltar, New Zealand and Finland, while they have become the first club outside England's established top four to market their matches to international TV broadcasters.

Unfortunately for Murray, he knows it will be one of the only areas in which his club will compete on an equal footing with the Premiership's biggest names.

Charlton v Chelsea: The great divide

CHARLTON'S FIRST TEAM

Cost: £14.67m

Record transfer paid: Jason Euell £4.75m

Average attendance: 26,403

Total turnover (2004): £42.6m

Total wages (2004): £29.9m

CHELSEA'S FIRST TEAM

Cost: £151.2m

Record transfer paid: Michael Essien £26m

Average attendance: 41,870

Total turnover (2004): £143.6m

Total wages (2004): £114.8m

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