City players with one eye on yet another prosperous New Year as a professional footballer could be in for a rude awakening – talk of salary capping is all the rage.
The good times might be over, boys. Time to tighten your belts – like the rest of us.
Today it was the turn of Middlesborough boss Gareth Southgate – and MyFootballWirter columnist and leading Sun football writer Charlie Wyett – to peer over the edge of the abyss and spot an industry in potential meltdown as the credit crunch squeezes even football's rich and famous.
Southgate has already put his money where his mouth is – or rather Steve Gibson's money where his young manager's mouth is – by slashing ?7 million off the wage bill at The Riverside this summer; last week and it was City's own chief executive Neil Doncaster locking horns with Cardiff chairman Peter Ridsdale over the issue of salary capping.
No prizes for guessing as to which of the two parties favoured the 'Spend, spend, spend…' approach after both Robbie Fowler and Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink feather-bedded their retirements with a stint in South Wales.
Southgate was fearing the worst for the Premiership if both transfer fees and wages continue to go unchecked; Charlie cited at least four clubs in the Championship who could yet start the 2009-2010 season with a minus sign by their points total as administration looms ever larger on that troubled New Year horizon.
“Everything goes in cycles,” said Southgate, warning of a severe downturn heading the Premiership's way; of boom invariably leading to bust.
“A few years ago Serie A was definitely the place to play. All the money was in their league and it was the place where players got paid the most. That place is now the Premier League. We have the best players at the moment, but history tells us that things don't always stay that way forever.”
Which is why he spent just ?500,000 on new players this summer – a tiny amount by usual Premiership standards; it is why Boro have invested so much time and effort in their Academy – two of whom, Matthew Bates and Jonathan Grounds, have briefly found themselves on loan to the Canary cause.
“People say, 'You can't afford to drop out of the league so you need to spend…' but the way we were going I'm not sure if we could continue to afford to stay in it,” Southgate told The Guardian. “You've got to be strong-minded enough to take a different view on things.”
Doncaster certainly has a very different view on things than Ridsdale. Reported to be in the running for a top vacancy at the Football Association, Doncaster's demand that football take a long hard look at itself and the way that it flashes the cash in the face of the every-day reality facing its recession-hit supporters could yet become policy at the FA headquarters in Soho Square.
There are an awful lot of emperors with no clothes on out there; a lot of clubs that fall into the 'fur coat and no knickers…' category when it comes to their finances.
“The easy availability of cheap credit has fuelled massive inflation in player salaries,” Doncaster told The Guardian in that recent, head-to-head debate with Ridsdale. He of Leeds United fame.
“For many years, clubs have paid their players far more than they can really afford ? chasing the dream of success shared by supporters, managers and club directors alike,” added City's young chief executive.
“And it is naive to think that football is somehow isolated from the woes of the wider economy. Anecdotal evidence is that clubs are beginning to come under financial pressure as discretionary spend, from companies and fans alike, is reduced.”
The irony is, of course, that if the likes of a Southampton, a Sheffield Wednesday or a Watford were to go bust in the next six months, under Football League rules they would immediately be 'fined' with a ten-point points deduction. Which, in turn, would nigh-on guarantee relegation to League One – and leave everyone else in the bottom third of the Championship with one less relegation spot to fight for.
This season's relegation fight could yet be fought just as much off the pitch as on it; one new book and TV deal for Delia could be all it takes as the cash-strapped banks call time on club after defaulting club.
A salary cap based on a percentage of the club's turnover was, said Doncaster, one potential way forward. It is already in use in League Two.
“It is both legally robust and flexible enough to accommodate differences between clubs,” he claimed. And could even include 'gifts' from wealthy benefactors – though the chances of another Jack Walker walking through anyone's door these days is getting ever more remote.
The Premiership might still attract a passing Middle East prince, but not a 'provincial' club outside the top flight. Or even a London one, as Charlton discovered this autumn as their Arab 'saviour' took one look at the books and disappeared.
Rather closer to home and City boss Glenn Roeder today ruled out a credit-crunch, barter-type deal between the Norfolk club and Coventry City – David Bell going one way, centre-half Elliott Ward going the other. And not a penny exchanging hands – a free swap deal of the sort that Messrs Southgate and Doncaster would thoroughly approve.
As, indeed, would the club's respective owners and bankers.
Either way it's now off the agenda – if it was ever on the agenda in the first place.
“This story does not originate from Norwich City. I know where it comes from and I am not happy,” Roeder told the Eastern Daily Press today.
“Let me categorically state I have no interest in signing Elliott Ward and there is no possibility of David Bell leaving in a swap deal. He has only just started his Norwich City career, he is getting better and better all the time and I believe he will prove to be an absolute bargain signing.”
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