It's tough at the top and even tougher at the bottom
Supporters will always want their club to spend money it hasn't got, writes Richard Sadlier
Published 14/02/2010 | 05:00
Prior to the formation of the Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur chairman Alan Sugar addressed a meeting of club representatives with the following prediction: "Gentlemen, it doesn't matter whether the television company gives us £3m or £33m, we'll piss it up against the wall on wages." Not for the first time in his business life, he was spot on.
Wrongfully viewed by many as recession-proof, it appears the Premier League may be getting very close to seeing one of its clubs go into administration, or even out of business altogether. Less than two years after lifting the FA Cup, Portsmouth were in court again last week facing a winding-up order for tax debts of almost £12m. Cardiff City and Southend were in court on the same day for similar reasons, and with Crystal Palace already in administration, it seems repeated calls for the introduction of common sense to the running of clubs have been ignored by many.
It must be a difficult time to be a Portsmouth footballer (well, putting to one side that regardless of performance they can't get sacked, they get paid tens of thousands each week, and even if they left mid-contract, they'd be paid handsomely to go), but they've been relatively restrained in their public comments so far. In fairness, it may not be the wisest thing for millionaires in sports cars to complain about relatively minor delays in the payment of wages given rising unemployment levels everywhere else, but the farcical nature of how the club has been run has considerably lessened whatever sympathy there may be for those in charge. Sitting at the foot of the Premier League, it must be a lot tougher being a Portsmouth supporter.
While those fans are beside themselves with worry and disbelief at the situation the club finds itself in, League of Ireland observers will be wondering what all the fuss is about. Though operating on lower levels with inferior budgets, the financial difficulties of clubs has been a feature of almost every discussion in relation to the League for quite some time. Everyone involved has an explanation and someone to blame, but despite rumblings about greedy players, the apathetic Irish public, incompetent club CEOs, media agendas, the FAI lacking in leadership and the lack of government investment, the simple fact remains that clubs are living beyond their means, and risk their very existence by doing so.
Unlike abuse from fans, lengthy injuries, loss of form or being dropped, non-payment of wages is not something a player can just get on and deal with. Weekly calls to agents, frosty confrontations with club directors and pleas of patience from the manager become commonplace, but bills and mortgages still have to be paid. For too many players last season this became the norm in the league here, leading to some moving abroad, others returning to full employment, and pretty much everyone expecting less wages as a result.
It has taken longer than would have been hoped for clubs here to address the ridiculous spending, but whether the Premier League clubs will react in any way to Portsmouth's plight by cutting costs remains to be seen. If words are anything to go by (and I've found in football they're generally not), the new regime in charge at West Ham appear ready to seek a voluntary 25 per cent cut in all players' wages at the end of the season, irrespective of whether they avoid relegation or not.
I assume that wasn't the most welcome news in the West Ham dressing room, and it may lead to fans fearing a depletion of the squad, but with debts of £110m, it clearly needs to happen sooner rather than later.
While I was at St Pat's, we sought similar wage cuts from the playing squad 12 months ago. It is not a series of negotiations I would ever wish upon anyone, but convincing players to take voluntary cuts in the long-term interests of a club they know they will
leave in a year or two is an incredibly tricky path to take. Though desperately needed, announcing a greatly reduced operating budget was welcomed by nobody. Supporters began to fear the worst, the media exaggerated the underlying reasons for doing it, the players were disgusted, the manager resigned because of it, staff had to be made redundant, and I was left wondering why the hell I took the job as CEO in the first place.
West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola has spoken out against his new owners' decision to publicise their plans to cut wages, saying it detracts from their efforts at avoiding the drop. Revealing that the club's player liaison officer "who just drove a few of the players around" was earning a grand a week, owners David Gold and David Sullivan insist cuts will be sought throughout the club, immediately and extensively.
It may go a long way to securing a healthier future, or it may not. One thing is for sure though; fans will always demand that their club spends money, even if all the evidence suggests they don't have it.