Phil Hay Column: Dog eat dog in a Championship play-off line-up where no-one dares to lose
Financial accounts make for fairly dry reading, however many stories there are between the lines, but Derby County’s most recent numbers were well worth a look. All eyes focused on their owner Mel Morris buying Pride Park and leasing the ground to the club as a workaround to meet the EFL profitability and sustainability rules but there were other comments of note. Morris, the accounts said, intended to make Derby “a perennial competitor in the upper reaches of the Premier League”. More seriously, his financial support was “critical” to Derby’s health.
Twelve months on and reports in some quarters talk of Morris selling Derby for £1, to rid himself of the burden of owning a club in a division which eats money like a roulette wheel. Which poses the question: which of the four teams in the Championship play-offs are most desperate for salvation, in a season where three of the league’s biggest hitters find themselves there? These knockouts are manna from heaven for the EFL and all who throw money at their television rights: clubs with appeal, clubs with egos and clubs who are chasing promotion with a certain amount of desperation.
Leeds United are neither cash-rich nor destitute, though a turnover of around £45m in this financial year could result in an operating loss of £15m, but they are the club surrounded by the most aspirational pressure. There are unavoidable consequences of another season in the Championship and Andrea Radrizzani’s own comments make it clear that every passing year in the league reduces his lifespan as majority shareholder but the strain on Leeds is historical rather than financial.
They are the team who have been here forever, stuck on the Penrose Staircase while clubs go up and down the ladder, a phoenix whose only appearance in the past 15 years came via the pre-pack deal Ken Bates pulled off during their administration in 2007. Success has been so intangible that when the club made admission free for Monday’s Under-23s play-off final against Birmingham City, more than 10,000 turned up and a logistical shambles ensued. Granted, it was a Bank Holiday and a good way (in theory) to spend the afternoon but the same has always been true at Leeds. Build it and they will come, in droves.
Derby and Aston Villa have pulling power of their own, with attendances at the top end of the division’s averages this season, and West Bromwich Albion – the fourth dog in the fight – are three games from ensuring that a season in the Championship is merely a blip in their Premier League existence. Life in this league is no joke for West Brom. They came down last year with a wage bill of £92m, offset by media revenue of more than £100m. They made a loss of more than £7m anyway and while parachute payments will plug some of the gap, the slab of income from the Premier League’s television rights sales is heavily reduced. Their accounts described their board as “prepared for the risks” saying Albion had “analysed previous seasons spent in the Premier League and the Championship and tried to implement lessons from this experience.” The biggest lesson is not to stay at this level for long.
Where Villa are concerned, parachute payments are almost at an end. This is their final year of three and it will occur to many at Villa Park, as it has for a long time at Elland Road, how rapidly time passes in the EFL and how quickly the Championship wraps you up. Steve Gibson let himself dream of Middlesbrough “smashing the league and going up as champions” when the Premier League spat them out two years ago but any owner should be happy if the division releases its claws before their sanity expires. Morris is estimated to have thrown more than £100m at Derby, like an egg hitting a wall. It is like Roddy Forsyth, the Scottish football journalist, often says: make a small fortune out of football by starting with a big one.
Bristol City, a club who very nearly made the play-offs, are an interesting comparison with those who did. Their owner – friend of Leeds, Steve Lansdown – has written cheques aplenty in Bristol without letting the bubble burst.
They wanted a top-six finish but even while the possibility was there, Lee Johnson was promising a “bold summer” in the transfer market if it was Championship football for them again next year. Lansdown might feel the pinch one day but he is pushing Bristol City with a philosophical attitude. If it happens it happens. If not then the project continues.
Radrizzani was giving that same message at Leeds’ player-of-the-year award but whatever his outlook, the club and their support are not conditioned for another summer of cold, hard reflection. If Bielsa stays then Bielsa stays and hope genuinely springs eternal, and part of the problem at Elland Road over 15 years has been the constant attempt to hit on one sensational season instead of making a Premier League place the culmination of several. But Leeds are ready to go and, in that respect, they are in the same boat as Villa, Derby and West Brom. Every team in the play-offs always wants promotion. This year, everyone needs it.