The Championship: Cardiff show £10m gamble can pay off while Ipswich Town stall

The Weekend Dossier

Malky Mackay praised the depth and quality of his squad after Cardiff City’s win over Blackburn on Monday took them seven points clear in the Championship. That is what a £10m transfer investment does, but if their gamble looks to have paid off, with a massive injection of Premier League income on the horizon, in Suffolk they can only look on with envy.

A decade after playing against Internazionale in San Siro, Ipswich Town yesterday reported a £16m loss for last season. They now owe owner Marcus Evans £72.5m. Their wages-to-turnover ratio was a frightening 119 per cent. Put simply, for every £5 Ipswich earned they paid out £6 in wages, and still had to meet all the other costs of running a football club.

This is clearly unsustainable and Ipswich have since slashed their wage bill. Their next financial results may thus be less alarming, but the consequence has been a season-long struggle against relegation which is still not won.

Ipswich’s wages-to-turnover ratio was not, though, by any means the Championship’s worst last season. It was matched by Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest, and exceeded by Bristol City (157 per cent), Leicester (130 per cent) and Southampton (125 per cent). Ipswich’s losses were also lower than those incurred by Leicester (£29.7m) and West Ham (£25.5m).

For West Ham, retaining the bulk of their Premier League squad worked, as they went back up. Leicester have rolled the dice again but with mixed success. Performances have faltered and the club are actively sounding  out replacements for manager Nigel Pearson.

Ipswich decided to consolidate. This would seem the sensible course but it will not have been an easy one to take as the prize for promotion has never been greater. Even finishing last in next season’s Premier League is likely to bring in a £60m windfall, plus up to four years of parachute payments that could total £75m.

Moreover, the race to enjoy those riches has never been more wide-open. The relegated clubs, being backed by parachute payments and a core of players with Premier League experience, can normally be relied upon to win at least one of the promotion places, sometimes more. But this season, despite a £16m parachute, none of the trio coming down, Bolton,  Wolves and Blackburn, have challenged for automatic promotion. Bolton are making a late run for the play-offs after changing managers but Wolves risked the left-field appointment of Stale Solbakken and were punished. Blackburn invested heavily in the summer in transfers and wages, but successive managers have been stymied by the power battle within the club.

Nor have the clubs coming up been a threat. In the last two seasons Norwich and Southampton have ridden the momentum of success to achieve back-to-back promotions but Charlton Athletic, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town all struggled. In addition Blackpool, last season’s play-off finalists, began well but faded quickly amid managerial instability.

All of which meant promotion has been up for grabs. While not wishing to advocate clubs gambling with their futures – as in reality Cardiff, with debts of £83m, have done – it is surprising some have not spent more heavily.

The obvious example is Leeds United. The club has one of the biggest stadiums in the division, arguably the largest fan base, and some of the highest revenues.  At the start of the season it also had, in Neil Warnock, a manager with seven previous promotions to his name including QPR’s 2011 Championship title.  There were also a clutch of suitors preparing takeovers.

The stars seemed aligned over Elland Road, but the takeover was protracted and Warnock had to sell Robert Snodgrass without being able to re-invest the £3m fee. Eventually GFH Capital bought the club, but in the January transfer window was   just as parsimonious as Ken Bates had been. Top-scorer Luciano Becchio left, Steve Morison was a cheaper, and disappointing, replacement, and Leeds fell away.   In the circumstances, a wage-to-turnover ratio likely to be the division’s lowest at just over 50 per cent seems a false economy. Little seems to have changed since the respected football finance blogger Swiss Ramble concluded a year ago that “Leeds are punching well below their weight”.

It is, though, perhaps easier to understand why GFHC paid an initial £17m for a club which owns neither its own ground nor its well-appointed training complex.

The other perplexing case is Blackpool, who, like Birmingham City, receive a £13m parachute payment. This is part of a legacy of their season in the top flight which appears to have been frittered away (or banked by the owners, Owen Oyston being paid £11m in 2010-11). Clearly it has not been invested on the pitch, nor in the team.

Instead, it is Hull City and Watford who are on Cardiff’s heels. Hull , backed by an £8m parachute, have £2.6m striker Nick Proschwitz on the bench. Watford have a controversial mass loan arrangement with Udinese.

Gianfranco Zola has done remarkably well at Vicarage Road to sift his enormous squad into a winning combination so quickly, but the division’s over-achievers are Crystal Palace. They have remained in contention despite manager Dougie Freedman being lured away by the salary on offer at Bolton, and making a profit on transfers even without including Wilfried Zaha’s £10.3m fee (this is not in the accompanying table as he returned on loan).

Palace’s challenge is being maintained by Ian Holloway’s astute management and the fruits of a very good youth system (credit due here to former owner Simon Jordan). This used to be Ipswich’s speciality and, as Evans reins in his spending, it may have to be so again. How galling that the division’s biggest transfer fee this season was paid for a former Ipswich academy product, Jordan Rhodes, sold cheaply by Roy Keane four years and 108 goals ago.

CHAMPIONSHIP CLUBS:  TRANSFER SPENDING

Club Outlay League pos

Cardiff City £10.16m 1st

Blackburn £4.95m 19th

Bolton £2.8m 8th 

Nott’m Forest £2.77m 5th

Ipswich £2.5m 17th 

Bristol City £1.99m 24th

Hull City £1.62m 2nd

Leicester City £1.51m 7th

Peterborough £1.35m 23rd

Sheff Wed £1.15m 21st

Charlton Athletic £1.11m 14th

Derby County £1.1m 10th

Millwall £0.83m 15th

Brighton £0.61m 6th

Blackpool -£0.11m 16th

Middlesbrough -£1.65m 9th

Leeds United -£2.09m 12th

Crystal Palace -£2.57m 4th

Barnsley -£3.4m 20th

Watford -£3.51m 3rd

Burnley -£5.59m 13th

Huddersfield -£5.85m 22nd

Birmingham -£8.61m 11th

Wolves -£13.3m 18th

*Fees estimated

RORY TOLSON

Five Asides

1. Brazil’s armed police project a sobering World Cup vision 

This week’s pictures of Brazilian police baton-charging visiting footballers, the second such clash this season, were followed by yet another warning from Fifa over the slow pace of stadium construction. There can be few people who do not want the 2014 World Cup to be a wonderful football fiesta, but it is beginning to look like one of those tournaments when everyone will be praying it is all right on the night.

2. Goodbye, Craig – we’ll miss your skill and enthusiasm

A fond farewell to Craig Brown who, at 72, will sit in the dug-out for the final time tomorrow when his Aberdeen team play at Tannadice. The last manager to take Scotland to a major tournament (France ’98), Brown’s enduring enthusiasm and expertise will be missed.

3. Never mind Chelsea, have pity on the non-leaguers 

The appalling winter means many non-league clubs have a fixture pile-up to make Chelsea’s schedule appear mild, but few face the same combination of grind and glamour as Tunbridge Wells. The Kent League title-chasers play Saturday-Monday-Tuesday-Thursday this week, beginning a run of 14 matches in 24 days, including three in three days next week. They then have a brief respite ahead of the biggest match in the club’s history – the FA Vase final against Spennymoor at Wembley on 4 May. Unlike Chelsea, the players also have real jobs, including physically demanding ones like brickies.  “We don’t train. It’s just play-massage-recover,” said manager Martin Larkin. A recruitment consultant himself, he added: “I’ve an understanding boss.”

4. King deposed, another faller in the Cup stakes 

The FA Cup claimed another victim this week as Steve King was fired at Macclesfield. He took the Silkmen into the FA Cup fourth round for the first time, knocking out Swindon and Cardiff en route, but league form suffered. Even in the Conference promotion is now more important than the glory and cash of a cup run. 

5.. Harry’s game for another crack at the lower level 

“I will stay on at the club and have a go at the Championship [if Queen’s Park Rangers go down] – unless Tony Fernandes says he needs to cut back and I had to go.”  With seven league matches until the end of the season, Harry Redknapp prepares to launch his lifeboat.

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