Infrequently Answered Questions: Football’s Magic Money Tree

Football is awash with money but does funnelling most of it to players and agents improve the game?

An article posted yesterday on this blog posed the question whether we would ever get to see West Ham participate in the Champion’s League and, like many others, I believe that this can never happen without the club receiving significant external  investment.  Unless that is we manage to get into the Europa League again and make it all the way through without meeting part-time Romanian opposition.

Much is made of the money that has flowed into the English game over the years and it is normally presented as a major success story for the Premier League as it has created a global brand on the back of a few major clubs.  With more cash being splashed than ever, however, it also raises a number of questions in my mind.

Who actually benefits most from the magic Premier League money tree?

Without doubt there is a simple answer to this and it is players and agents.  As revenues have increased, mainly from broadcasting and commercial activities, then player wages have risen extraordinarily.  From the last published accounts, Premier League clubs earned combined revenues of £3.65 billion of which 61% went directly to player’s wages, with each of the five wealthiest clubs spending close to or in excess of £200 million on wages.   At West Ham revenues were £142 million (7th in the league) with a wage bill of £85 million (8th in the league), equivalent to 60% of earnings.  As these figures relate to the period before the signing of the new TV deal and before West Ham’s move to a larger stadium then we should expect to see significant increases in future years.

At about the same time that Trevor Francis became the first million pound footballer in 1979, Nottingham Forest also made Peter Shilton the highest paid player in English football, with a weekly wage of £1,200.  Allowing for inflation this would now be the equivalent of £6,400 per week while reports suggest that Manchester United keeper, David De Gea,  is paid £200,000 per week which is still some way behind Paul Pogba at a cool £290,000.  When Frank McAvennie re-signed for the Hammers from Celtic in 1989 (to become our own first million pound player, I believe) he was paid £2,200 per week (equivalent to £5,500) while treatment room specialist Andy Carroll is currently the top earner at West Ham at somewhere around £80,000.

While the players are raking it in the most recent financial accounts show that the clubs themselves made a combined loss of £117 million (although it had been a profit of £113 million in the previous year).  West Ham were one of eight clubs to make a loss when they came in with a modest deficit of £5 million (following a £3 million profit the year before).  Of course, if we can ignore any annual losses the value of the two Dave’s investment has grown handsomely in the money rich Premier League.

Do higher transfer fees mean better players?

West Ham feature twice in the historic progression of British transfer fees.  In 1922, Syd Puddefoot was sold for a record £5,000 fee to Falkirk in Scotland and in 1970 the transfer of Martin Peters to Tottenham (at a valuation of £200,000) also set a British record.  Looks like we have always been a selling club!

West Ham did set a record for a transfer between British clubs when they paid £65,000 for Johnny Byrne in 1962 and then also set a world goalkeeper transfer record on signing Phil Parkes from QPR (in 1979) for a fee of £565,000 (equivalent to circa £3 million today).  Compare these to the recent signing by Manchester City of Ederson for £35 million and last season’s signing of Pogba by Manchester United to close on £90 million.  Closer to home Frankie McAvennie’s transfer in 1989 (£1.25 million) would be the equivalent to £3 million today whereas the current West Ham transfer record is for Andre Ayew at £20 million.

It is almost impossible to compare players across eras as the nature of the game has changed tremendously.  Then they played more games, were expected to turn out every week (often twice a week), were less protected from the crunching tackle and mostly played in their home countries.  Today the game is far faster and more athletic but, at least in the Premier League, is both a squad game and an international one.  High wages and transfer fees have brought many top players to England (other than those good enough to play for Real Madrid or Barcelona) but many of them spend their time sat on the bench.  During the same period the development of home-grown talent appears to have stalled although many factors may have contributed to this state of affairs.  The technical skills on show may have improved but possibly not the thrills and excitement.

Last summer transfer spending by Premier League teams topped £1.1 billion with £720 (or 62%) of that going to overseas clubs and largely leaving the English game, although with some transfers monies flowing the other way the net overseas spend come out at £630 million.  The remainder of the money is re-cycled between English clubs. less agent’s commission.

It doesn’t take an insight of Mystic Meg proportions to expect that records will once again be breached in the upcoming window.

Does money makes for a better the Match-day Experience?

Although match day revenues are far less important to top flight clubs these days (less than 20% of total income) attendances continue to hold up well and, with a number of new stadiums and redevelopments underway or completed, the post-WW2 record for average attendance could well soon be broken.  The existing record was set in 1950 with an average of 37,400 per game against a 2013/14 Premier League record of just under 37,000.  By contrast the top flight low was 18,856 per game in 1983/84.  For West Ham the move to the London Stadium allowed them to comfortably set a new average attendance record of 56,972 while our own all-time low was 16,001 in the 1992/93 bond scheme aftermath.

In terms of spectator numbers then the game is as popular as ever but it is difficult to determine any comparative measure for value.  I can remember paying two shillings (ten pence) to stand as a boy on the North Bank and I came across an old ticket stub from 1989 where the cost was £8.50, the highest price ticket band at the time.  Adjusted for inflation this would be equivalent to £21 in today’s terms while, in reality, a top band seat at the London Stadium will actually set you back £70 to £80.

It would be unfair to suggest that none of the new money has gone to improve stadium facilities and seats (marginally more comfortable), toilets (more of them and slightly less smelly) and catering (more options than just Bovril and Percy Dalton’s peanuts) have all been improved to a some degree.  Being able to turn up ten or fifteen minutes before kickoff is also preferable to the hour or so that was required to get the best position on the terraces.  The most notable improvement, however, is in the quality of playing surfaces and the provision of under-soil heating to ensure that games invariably go ahead as scheduled.  But even having said that it is still a matter of opinion as to whether two teams stroking the ball around on a putting green surface is more entertaining than a blood and guts battle on a 1970’s mud bath.  It is a question I’ll have to put to those purists when I finally meet them.

So what is the point of it all?

If we can subscribe to the Olympian view that “it is not the winning but the taking part” then we, and another dozen or so clubs, can put aside the unfortunate fact that there is almost zero chance of winning the competition that we have entered and get on with simply taking part.  Clubs can be satisfied that even the most abject of failures will leave them with a prize money pot of over £90 million.  Supporters can safely put aside any unrealistic hopes and concentrate on having a nice day out, maybe enjoy a pint or two, shout to relieve those little frustrations of life and take pleasure from the occasional unexpected victory over Tottenham.

In the twenty five years of the Premier League there have only been six winners but then  again, in the twenty five years before that, only eight different teams won the First Division; although there was much more variety among the contenders than we see today.  Surprisingly, given the seriousness with which it is sometimes treated, the FA Cup shows a greater consolidation with eight different winners in the Premier League era but fifteen in the same period beforehand.

In West Ham’s history (since election to the Football League) the club experienced forty five years without a trophy, won four cups in sixteen years and have since gone thirty seven more without success.   It is probably reasonable to conclude that any dreams of silverware are the triumph of hope over expectation and that entertainment is the only rational reason for attending or following most clubs.  The problem is that, at the first sign of impending relegation struggle, managers largely abandon any pretence at entertainment to enter survival lock-down mode.  From a financial point of view survival may be seen as success but whether it will always be enough to satisfy spectators in the long run is a separate question.  In some ways it would be like going to watch your favourite movie franchise with no interest in plot or action and only being concerned that the main characters survive the final act in order to make a sequel.

Will West Ham ever play in the Champions League?

Will we ever hear the “We Are Champion’s League” chant echo around the London Stadium?

Did you watch the Champions League final at the weekend between Real Madrid and Juventus? I thought it was an excellent game that was light years away from any of the domestic football we’ve seen this season. My first experience of seeing a European Cup Final was as a six year-old watching on black and white TV with my dad. I was enthralled seeing Real Madrid thrash Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the 1960 final. In those days the European Cup (which became the UEFA Champions League in the 1990s) was only for the champions of countries. Nowadays of course it is a mega highly branded competition where up to four teams can qualify from leading countries.

So all we need to do is finish in the top four of the Premier League and we are in. Sounds easy? Of course not. I am afraid that the Premier League is now so predictable and driven by money that I can easily forecast which clubs will be in contention for a top four finish next season. It will be simply a case of perm any four from this season’s top six teams. The two Manchester clubs, Liverpool, and the London trio of Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea are so far ahead of the rest in terms of revenue, I can see them dominating our domestic league for years to come.

What about Leicester in the season before last you may ask? Yes, they were the exception to the rule, an absolute freakish surprise, but I honestly can’t see anything like that happening again. If you look at the Deloitte table of the richest clubs, then there are ten Premier League clubs that have appeared in the Top 20 in Europe in the last couple of years. In addition to our big six then the nearest challengers in revenue terms are Newcastle, Everton, Leicester and ourselves. But when you consider that Tottenham (the sixth richest club in England) are so far behind Liverpool in fifth, and then see how far behind Tottenham we are, then we are just not in a position to compete financially. Of course the move to the London Stadium will help us in financial terms, but all it will do is slow down the rate at which the top clubs are pulling away, which grows bigger every year.

Apart from Leicester you have to go back to season 2004-05 to find anyone outside of the big six who managed to break into the top four, when Everton crept into fourth place. Newcastle themselves did so a couple of times prior to that season, and Leeds also did around the turn of the century, but although money was a factor in those days, the differential between the top clubs and those below them wasn’t so great then. Now the differences are so huge, and the gap is getting wider, that I cannot see it happening again in the foreseeable future.

Our bullish owners are hopeful that we can compete to join this elite club, and indeed we gave it a good go in our final season at Upton Park when we finished seventh, and could perhaps have finished even higher. Almost twenty years ago we achieved our highest ever placing in the Premier League when we finished fifth in 1997-98, and a little over ten years before that in the days when the top flight was called Division One, the boys of 1986 came so close when we finished third. But it was a different world then as teams such as Southampton, Forest, Watford, Ipswich, and Norwich all managed top four finishes in the 1980s.

In many ways the Premier League is more competitive than most with six teams regularly contesting to finish at the top. In the other top leagues such as Germany, France, Spain and Italy, there are perhaps two or three teams at the most who are likely to finish as champions. This is not too surprising as our top six clubs make up half of the top dozen richest clubs in the world. But this only means that we will find it harder to earn a place in the Champions League.

To break into the elite we would need to sign some top players. But the very best players only want to play in clubs competing in the Champions League, so even if we were prepared to pay top dollar for the best, I am afraid that they wouldn’t join us anyway. I cannot see a day when we will ever play in the Champions League. Next season the best we can possibly hope for is to be among a group of middle ranking clubs who will fight to finish in seventh place (as we did a year ago) in the Premier League. I’d love to be wrong and see us emulating Leicester of a year ago. But it won’t happen.

Five Favourite Unsung Hammer’s Heroes

A personal selection of West Ham players who barely get a mention in the litany of misty-eyed nostalgia.

By definition this is a very subjective list in that it relies on two assumptions;  one, that these were good players and two, that their efforts went largely unnoticed by the majority of West Ham fans.  In fact their status as unsung in largely in an historic context rather than during their time spent in a Hammer’s shirt.  Thus, none would likely ever feature in, or be anywhere near, any supporter’s all time favourite West Ham team.  Technically, I guess, to be truly unsung there shouldn’t be a terrace song about you either and, as far as I know, this is the case for each of my selections.

Using the accepted convention in such matters, in reverse order my nominations are:

5              Paul Goddard

Goddard’s inclusion in the list stems mainly from the fact that he was ultimately over-shadowed by the McAvennie/ Cottee partnership in the 1985/86 season that led to his inconspicuous and premature departure from the club the following season.  When he was signed in the aftermath of the 1980 FA Cup win, as a replacement for Stuart Pearson, it was for a club record fee of £800,000 and he quickly formed a lethal partnership with (the original Psycho) David Cross; which terrorised Division Two defences during that all-conquering promotion season of 1980/81.  Between them Goddard and Cross found the net fifty-six times in all competitions including a memorable run to the League Cup final against Liverpool, where Goddard opened the scoring in the replay at Villa Park.  A classy striker, who was excellent on the ball, a cool and clinical finisher and who would have featured highly in the assist tables had they existed at the time, Goddard made just over 200 appearances for West Ham between August 1980 and November 1986, scoring 71 times.  Injury curtailed his involvement in 1983/84 and then struck again at the start of 1985/86 when his absence inspired the pairing together of McAvennie and Cottee upfront.  In 1982 Goddard earned his solitary international appearance scoring the equalising goal for Ron Greenwood’s England in a Word Cup warm-up game against Iceland.  Unfortunately he did not make the cut for the Finals and was never to feature for his country again.  When transferred to Newcastle in 1986 it also set a new transfer record (£415,000) for his new club.

4              Trevor Morley

Mention Trevor Morley and most people immediately think of the infamous stabbing incident and lurid but unfounded ‘three in a bed’ stories involving team-mate Ian Bishop.  Morley and Bishop arrived at West Ham together in a December 1989 swap deal with Manchester City that saw winger Mark Ward head back north.  Despite scoring ten goals from his first eighteen games it was not enough to fire the Hammers back into the top flight at the first time of asking but promotion came a year later when he contributed a further twelve goals.  Morley was little used back in Division One partly because manager Billy Bonds preferred the Clive Allen/ Mike Small partnership and partly due to him missing two months of the season after being stabbed by his wife.  It turned out to be a unsatisfactory season all round as West Ham finished rock bottom and became one of the few clubs ever to be relegated from Division One to Division One.  The following season was Morley’s most successful with a 20 league goal tally that helped West Ham to earn promotion to the Premier League.  Thirteen goals in 1993/94 saw West Ham to a creditable mid-table finish while Morley was crowned as Hammer of the Year.    No goals from ten outings the following season ended his stay at Upton Park resulting in a free transfer to Reading at the conclusion of the 1994/95 season.  His last appearance being the Ludo Miklosko inspired home draw with Manchester United to deny them the title.

3              Peter Butler

Most often described as a journeyman footballer Butler strutted his stuff with nine different teams in all four divisions in a career that stretched from 1984 to 2000.  Essentially an inhabitant of unfashionable footballing locations such as Huddersfield, Bury, Notts County, Southend and Halifax, the call came in 1992 from the east-end of London to help newly demoted West Ham find their way back to the top, a feat which was successfully achieved.  Almost the stereotypical gritty northerner, Butler brought a no-nonsense, tough tackling, hard as nails attitude to the West Ham midfield, exactly what was needed in the slog that is the lengthy second tier season.  Butler had few pretensions regarding his own capabilities but demonstrated an economy in passing that involved winning the ball and giving it quickly and simply to the more creative players in the side.  Butler was a regular in the Hammer’s first Premier League campaign playing twenty six of forty two games and weighing in with one goal, scored in a 3-2 home win against Coventry City.  Although he kept his place for the opening games of the 1994/95 season he quickly fell out of favour and, with the arrival of Don Hutchison, he was sold to Notts County in October 1994 – for twice his original signing fee.  After his playing days Butler has had an eclectic and nomadic career as a coach in various Asian and African countries and is currently manager of the Botswana national team.

2              Tim Breacker

With a name that always reminded me of the ‘Breaker Breaker’ slang from the contemporaneous Citizen Band radio craze, Breacker is also the only Tim ever to have played for West Ham.  Signed from Luton Town in October 1990 he was the Hammer’s first choice right back (back in the days when we had one of those) for the best part of eight seasons.  He made just short of 300 appearances for West Ham (putting him at number thirty eight in the all-time rankings) in which he scored eight goals.   It is probably fair to say that during that time he was mostly unspectacular and yet you knew that he would always give his all.  He would bomb up and down the touchline for the entire duration of the game and although there was nothing flashy about his game he would run and tackle and run and put in crosses all afternoon.  The 1993/94 season was arguably his most successful playing forty times in the Hammer’s Premier League campaign and scoring three goals including the only goal of the game in a rare win at Goodison Park.  He also featured in every round of a promising FA Cup run which finally ended in a sixth round replay defeat to his old club, Luton Town of Division One; a match best remembered for a hat-trick by Scott Oakes, son of Showaddywaddy guitarist Trevor, and an uncharacteristic Steve Potts slip.  Since retirement from playing Breacker has had a variety of coaching jobs and is currently Chief Scout at Bolton Wanderers.

1              Ronnie Boyce

Ticker Boyce probably only qualifies as an unsung hero because he was from an era of West Ham history that was dominated by Moore, Hurst and Peters and supported by other headline makers such as Byrne and Sissons.  Affectionately known as ‘Ticker’ in recognition of his place as the heartbeat of the side Boyce spent a total of 37 years associated with West Ham in various capacities.  He possessed great work rate, covered every blade of grass but was also an astute passer of the ball.  Boyce made his league debut as a 17 year old in October 1960 and was still only 21 when he scored the winning goal in the 1964 FA Cup Final against Preston North End.  He only scored twenty nine goals in over 340 appearances (twenty sixth in the all-time rankings) for West Ham but was on fire in 1964 cup run having also scored two in the semi-final victory over Manchester United.  There was another winner’s medal the following year in the European Cup Winner’s Cup and it was another Boyce goal that kicked off the Hammer’s European adventure with the only goal of the game against La Gantoise in Belgium.  A one club man Boyce was rewarded with a testimonial in November 1972 against a Manchester United side featuring Bobby Charlton and George Best and although (unusually) Boyce did not score, West Ham ran out 5-2 victors on the night.  After his playing days Boyce had various roles coaching and scouting for the club right up until 1995.  He had one game as caretaker manager in 1990 after Lou Macari’s departure; a 2-2 draw away to Swindon Town.

West Ham and the Loan Arranger

Will dreams of big signings dissolve into a series of hasty loan deals? And does sending young players out on loan always make good sense?

As much a part of summer as flood alerts, hosepipe bans and angry wasps, close season recruitment at West Ham begins with an improbable anticipation of marquee signings; but, as the nights draw in, inevitably transforms to a resigned acceptance of season long loan deals. As was so perfectly illustrated in yesterday’s article, 48 Hours in the Life of West Ham Transfer Speculation, we are now firmly in that positive upswing phase of gratuitous optimism, where you could easily be forgiven for thinking that players are falling over themselves (and not in the simulation sense) to earn a move to the London Stadium.

If history has taught us anything, however, a more likely reality is a series of high profile snubs and rejections, generating a heightened level of desperation that culminates in an eleventh hour appeal to the loan system. The forlorn hope being that, somewhere, a club is inexplicably prepared to lend us that twenty goals per season striker that has proved to be so elusive for so long.

It seems incongruous to me that one of the top 20 richest clubs in the world (in terms of revenue) and one that boasts how it is in the top 10 of highest attendances in Europe should so regularly find itself scrabbling around in the bargain basement of the loan market.  If you are confident about what you need and have thorough and professional scouting arrangements there should be no need to consider a try before you buy policy. Even in those circumstances where a loan proves successful, and there is right to buy clause, it will eat a large hole in the transfer kitty for the following summer, for a player that you already have, leaving no option but for the cycle to repeat next time around when further improvement is required. Such deferred payment deals simply have the whiff of an over cautious short-term approach about them.

Of course, there are examples of successful loans, such as our own Manuel Lanzini or Lukaku at Everton, but these are exceptions rather than any form of justification. You could argue that without loans we could have been lumbered with Zaza and Tore as permanent signings but, really, these were just shocking misguided decisions in the first place. A club with a sound recruitment policy would not need to hedge its bets in this way.

On the flip side of the coin is the topic of sending young players out on loan; the theory being that loans give a young player experience and that they will return a better player. Recently we have seen David Gold tweeting that young players cannot make it in the Premier League without first going out on loan and then there were reports that West Ham were looking to send two of their hottest prospects, Reece Oxford and Domingos Quina, out on season long loans next season. Further it was reported that it was hoped these loans could be arranged early so that the players had a full pre-season with their new clubs.

Contrast this approach with the more progessive club managers (Pochettino and Klopp, for example) who prefer to keep their young stars close-by in order to oversee development and to ensure that they are schooled in the club’s philosophy and style of play. Even though Klopp has softened his stance he has ensured that players are only loaned to clubs with managers that he knows and trusts, such as Wagner at Huddersfield.  Last season West Ham loaned out ten t twelve players, largely to struggling Championship and League 1 sides and it is debatable, in those circumstances where they got a regular game, what development resulted from the experience; a possible exception being Josh Cullen at Bradford City.

Looking back to the days when the West Ham academy was actually prolific and you will see a preference for short term loans with each of Rio Ferdinand, Lampard Junior, Carrick and Johnson only playing ten games or so away from the club. Joe Cole did not go out on loan and only Defoe, who spent the best part of a season at Bournemouth, was subject to a longer deal. Even in more recent times both Noble and Tomkins only spent brief periods away from the club. With the Hammers now competing in the top tier of Premier League 2 young players should encounter more accomplished opponents than at the bottom of League 1. Maybe short loans can be seen as toughening up exercises or a way to get used to larger crowds but it need not be seen as a mandatory rite of passage.  If there are wider development needs in our young players then this suggests deficiencies in the academy.   Experience off the bench, not just sitting on it, would be far more useful in my eyes.

Loans are a significant part of the modern game and the way that it is abused by clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City is a separate subject in itself. My hope for West Ham is that the system can be used sparingly and wisely and only where there is compelling benefit.

48 Hours in the Life of West Ham Transfer Speculation

With several squad’s worth of targets linked in the past 48 hours which ones are we supposed to believe?

Has it always been like this? There is now a whole industry surrounding transfer rumours, fuelled largely by social media, the newspapers, Sky Sports and Talk Sport. I guess that as a West Ham fan I only really notice our involvement in these, but we always seem to be at the forefront when it comes to speculation regarding potential targets.

How much truth is there in what we read and hear? I find it quite amusing how some on social media appear to believe everything put before them, and start making judgements on how good or bad the players are, how they would fit into the team, and our possible best line-up to start the new season. How much of what we see exists to tempt readers to read further, whilst being bombarded with advertising?

In the past some of the West Ham hierarchy and their families have been allegedly quoted in confirming our interest in this player or that. But I think that the penny has finally dropped, and there is a realisation that this is not the way to do business. Some say it is a ploy to sell season tickets, but surely if there is any truth in the 46,280 renewal rate (90%, which incidentally is way above the Premier League average, and significantly more than many forecast), and a waiting list of 50,000 plus, then that would be totally unnecessary?

Last summer there was, of course, the talk of the marquee striker that we wanted to sign, and despite the fact that we were in Europe, albeit we qualified for the lesser competition, all the talk came to nothing, and Ayew became our record signing at the last minute. This time around I would love to see us do all our business early in the window, which doesn’t actually open for another month, and get our squad finalised in time for a full pre-season, to enable us to work on a strategy for how we are going to play, with any new recruits fully settled into the squad.

Out of interest I have compiled a list from a variety of sources of all the players that we are supposedly interested in bringing to the London Stadium. The list is confined to a 48 hour period on 30 – 31 May, and of course, it is not definitive, as I may have missed some!

Goalkeepers: Hart, Pickford, Ruddy, Szczesny, Krul.

Defenders: Clichy, Semedo, Gibson, Maguire, Keane, Raggett.

Midfielders: Asamoah, Tadic, Barkley, Wilshere, Sigurdsson, Mertens.

Strikers: Batshuayi, Gray, Iheanacho, Braithwaite, Long, Sturridge, Mitrovic, Mboula, Selke, Kruse, Ibrahimovic, Bacca, Slimani, Perez.

How many of these supposed potential targets can we expect to don the claret and blue shirt next season? I’d love it if one day I could read about a really good signing after it has been finalised, with no knowledge or speculation about it beforehand. But I won’t hold my breath.