It’s easy for us, as fans, to thrust ourselves back in our seats with exasperation. “Why have we signed Felix whatever-his-name-is when we could have got David Stockdale on a free transfer? It’s insane” we cried. Myself included. “Why have we not gone for Jota if he was available?” came further cries after the attacking midfielder left Brentford. It’s easy to forget the financial side of the business because we’re rarely exposed to it, but Birmingham City’s expenditure has been brought under public scrutiny as they look to fail Financial Fair Play.
David Stockdale may have been a free transfer, but his wage at City is £40k/week. Considering the Leeds United wage structure means that “top earners” hit a £15k/week ceiling, it’s easy to see why Leeds were never meaningfully in for the running for the Leeds-supporting stopper. A £40k salary would be nearly 3x our wage cap. Jota was an initial £6m transfer fee and commanded a £45k/week wage, which is comfortably more than Leeds have spent on a player AND 3x our wage ceiling.
It’s deeper than looking at players we didn’t sign but fans felt we should have. It’s endemic in football that poor sides like Birmingham are poorly advised (by charlatans like Harry Redknapp) to over-invest in order to succeed. Only clubs made rich by parachute payments could hope to conduct the kind of deals Birmingham were seen to be making. Their new signings amounted to nearly £16m of additional wage overhead per year. That’s staggering when you’re in the Championship. Spending beyond your means is a recipe for disaster (as Leeds fans are all-too aware).
The secondary problem this creates for clubs like Leeds (who are committed to sustainability) is that it’s hard to tempt players like Jota or Stockdale to earn 33% of what another club is willing to pay them (not that I’m suggesting we meaningfully attempted to sign either player, I’m talking purely hypothetically).
The Championship is now littered with teams like Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, swollen by the absurd money that trickles down from the Premier League, capable of spending £7m+ on players without meaningfully ruining their future, cheerfully shouldering £30-40k/week on key players in an attempt to bounce back into the promised land. The other side to the same coin are sides like Birmingham of Sheffield Wednesday, over-reaching their earning potential and over-spending. So desperate are clubs to bask in the more temperate financial climate that they’re willing to risk everything to do so.
Sustainability is boring, but it’s sustainable (funnily enough). Leeds signed Felix Wiedwald for around £500k and are probably paying him a max of £10k/week. That’s a huge difference over the course of a year over someone like Stockdale who would cost £2.1m in wages for 12 months, which even if you consider the £500k transfer fee for Wiedwald as a year-one cost, still makes him half the price.
Sustainability is seldom successful, though. You can certainly make an argument for it in previous years where the gap in financial clout between Championship clubs was less wide, but with Premier League money snowballing into a literal game-changer, it’s increasingly common to have the rich clubs dominate the league. It’s not a sure-fire method for success (look at the money that Fulham/Derby have invested over the years) but I’d wager that the sides that have been promoted in recent years have had to invest. Huddersfield are perhaps the only deviation from this, though they heavily relied on loan deals.
Brighton are held up as the model to replicate, as they have incrementally built something sustainable over the previous years. It’s obvious that this is the approach Leeds are hoping to mimic, but the looming threat of losing key players in the Summer transfer window is the best indication of why sustainability is challenging. Good players will always looked at closely by higher-spending sides as a key ingredient in their model of buying success. It’s easier to spend £12m on Pontus Jansson than it is scout 100 players in the hope of spotting one equally as capable. Buying known entities costs money and, unsurprisingly, these sides with deeper pockets easily turn the player’s head. They can pay more, they appear more ambitious and history shows that they are statistically more likely to get promoted.
So while we’re building with sustainable growth in mind, this slow upward trajectory comes with the necessary evil of losing a few key assets on the way. But perhaps this is why we’re signing fewer “known” players and instead making scouted gambles on continental talent, because we’re simply not able to financially compete (or should I say, not willing to risk our future again).
And here for your pleasure is the Birmingham summary:
My. Good. God. pic.twitter.com/nMzHuouB7c
— Craig Spillard (@CSpillard) February 28, 2018