Looking back over the last football season, certain things stick in the mind. Chelsea’s Double, Tottenham in the Champions League, the turmoil at Liverpool, plucky Blackpool winning promotion. On the other side of the coin, the plight of the relegated clubs has been somewhat sidelined.
Hull and Portsmouth are relegated, demoralised, and suffering huge financial problems. They now find themselves at a crossroads. Get it wrong, and the consequences could be brutal. While Burnley look capable of surviving their fall, things look far less certain for the other two.
The Championship is fast becoming a league of debt-ridden teams. Next season, Hull and Portsmouth will join fellow strugglers Crystal Palace, Cardiff, Watford, Sheffield United and Ipswich. And with Avram Grant (one of the few people to leave the situation with his reputation enhanced) having left the South Coast club to take up the reins at another financially stricken team, the next few months will be crucial.
With an exodus of players expected and no funds to bring in new recruits, the next boss will have a job on his hands to stop them spiralling further down the ladder. The tradition and fan base of a club count for nothing at this stage.
The precedent is there. League One is a long fall from grace, but it is a drop that has regularly been made in recent years by clubs that used to enjoy their football in the top flight. The likes of Charlton, Norwich, Southampton and the MK Dons (the continuation of Wimbledon) are shining examples of what can happen when things go wrong.
And then there is Leeds United. They have only just escaped after three years in the exile that is England’s third tier. Their downfall is extremely well documented, with their era of catastrophic excess entering football folklore. Peter Ridsdale as Chairman (now trying to sell Cardiff, who also find themselves fighting for their future) oversaw a regime that very nearly destroyed the club through a staggering level of incompetence.
It is a lesson that teams like Portsmouth and Hull have failed to take on board. Both have spent above their means in a desperate attempt to remain competitive in an increasingly inflated market. Like Leeds, they have paid over the odds in transfer fees and wages while chasing a dream. It is a direction that an increasing number of Premiership clubs are taking. The emerging spending power of Manchester City, Tottenham and even Birmingham has meant that the chasing pack have had to spend highly to keep within touching distance. While all this newfound wealth in the league looks set to disband the recognised top four, it has also made the jostle to avoid relegation even more tight, with perilous consequences for the team that can not escape.
Hull spent a club record fee of £5 million on injury prone midfielder Jimmy Bullard. At the time people questioned Fulham manager Roy Hodgson’s decision to let him go. It looks astute now, and Bullard missed most of the season. Relegation was disastrous for Hull, and they may have to rely on the parachute payments from the Premier League to keep them afloat, while the petty squabbles between the chairman Adam Pearson and his predecessor Paul Duffen continue.
Things were different for Portsmouth. In 2008, their fans could be forgiven for thinking that their club was on the up. A win over Cardiff saw them lift the F.A Cup, they finished the season in a respectable eighth place, and they qualified for Europe. Things changed when Harry Redknapp left to join Tottenham, and began his quest to re-sign every player that he has ever managed before.
The reign of Tony Adams faltered quickly, and things slowly began to unravel. Soon, the financial position became clearer as a succession of owners came and went. Before long, the fire sale began, and the core of the squad was ripped apart. The key strike partnership of Defoe and Crouch were sold to Tottenham for a combined fee of twenty-six million; just a drop in Portsmouth’s ocean of debt.
Would Portsmouth fans have sacrificed their FA Cup (the clubs only piece of meaningful silverware in decades) in order to stay in the league in the long term? While it is impossible to prove that there is a cause and effect here, the wages and bonuses that Portsmouth spent in their cup winning season has surely contributed heavily to their current financial meltdown.
There is an interesting debate to be had between short term success and long term stability. Stay in the Premiership as a team who accept nothing more than mid-table mediocrity, or spend excessively in search of success but run the risk of long-term problems? Leeds lived the dream, but was it worth it?
It is a cliché to say that while directors, managers and players will come and go, the fans of a club will always stay. It is true nonetheless. The real tragedy of this new financial trend is that there is nothing the fans can do until it is too late. They are left watching on from the sidelines as the teams they love are destroyed by bad management. It has happened before, and will surely happen again.
A lot rides on the coming season for Portsmouth and Hull. At the moment, it is possible for them to make their mark in the Championship. They have experience of escaping the division, and they should be entering into a fairly level playing field. It leaves them with some hope, at least for now.