Derby’s Woes Are a Sign of the Future in League One

By Ed6767 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

It has been officially confirmed that Derby County have entered administration, automatically earning a 12-point deduction in the Championship.

Coupled with the expected nine points they’re set to lose for financial irregularities (a posh word for cheating), they’re sure to be a League One side next season. It’s a sad decline for a team who competed in the play-offs a couple of seasons ago, but it merely continues a depressing trend across our second tier. I’ve got news for you as well; it’s coming to the third tier very soon, in my opinion.

Here’s a sad fact for you. In 20/21, Sheffield Wednesday were deducted points and thus relegated for breaching the League’s Profitability and Sustainability Rules. In 2019/20, Wigan dropped out of the Championship as a result of a points deduction for entering administration. In 2019, it was Bolton. That’s three seasons where the relegation battle has been partly decided on performance and partly on financial issues.

The lure of Premier League football has led plenty of clubs down the wrong path; Portsmouth are another fine example of the boom or bust mentality in the second tier. The Premier League money may be the saviour of many clubs, but it is the undoing of others. Make no mistake, had Derby beaten Aston Villa in the 2019 play-off final, it would be likely that the Villans, not the Rams, would be in this dire position. Clubs spend huge sums of money chasing the even bigger pot of gold the Premier League offers, and many fall by the wayside as a result. Others, such as Birmingham and QPR, have avoided serious financial problems but have certainly tried and failed to spend big to reach the promised land.

Michael’s been vocal on the challenges this summer – Credit Graham Burrell

I can see the same trend happening in League One right now. This might seem a little resentful, and maybe it is, but last year’s salary cap prevented any club from spending like Viv Nicholson. Instead, we saw a far more balanced league in which the Imps thrived, although it is important to remember we were not saddled with a whole load of big earners we couldn’t shift, like some. However, clubs that had a bit of money couldn’t spend it, and those who wished to buy success could not. It is worth noting that only a small clutch of clubs had cash to spend on players; Hull, Posh and Blackpool three of them. All three went up.

Sadly, cash is king, and with the shackles off this season, we’ve seen a huge rise in wages and transfer fees as clubs chase the second promised land, the bit of land you get to before the real promised land, the Championship. It’s our Holy Grail, but it is merely the staging post before their real goal, the Premier League, for many in our division. Is there an Imps fan who thinks the Premier League is our ultimate goal? I doubt it; if we got Championship football at Sincil Bank, it would be like all the best birthdays ever, all come at once. We dream of it, but we won’t risk the club’s future to get there.

I remember the year Villa and Derby met in the play-off final. I was covering it for Football League World, and it was routinely described as packed with big clubs, all of whom felt promotion was achievable. According to transfermarkt, Stoke spent £56m, Middlesbrough £19m and Forest £24m. All three were outside the top six. Stoke ‘lost’ £29m in terms of transfer deficits, and Forest lost £23m. That’s without the eye-watering wages. Figures from the year before show Villa, who earned promotion, spent £73m on wages. Boro had a £49m wage bill, Derby £40m and lowly teams such as Birmingham and reading on £39m and £35m respectively. Championship clubs were spending 107% of their revenue on wages, and that’s not easy. Why don’t you try spending 107% of your income on bills? Not possible without severe problems surfacing very quickly.

I am still bitter – Credit Graham Burrell

I might get pelters from other club’s fans for the next paragraph or two, but I don’t care. This year’s League One is more like the Championship that Derby and Villa played in than anything. The numbers for League One are not always clear, and those who spend big hide behind excuses or try to reason. Take Ipswich, and genuinely I’m not still bitter about the weekend (okay, that’s not entirely true, but hey ho). In some exchanges this week, I’ve been confidently told Ipswich have turned a profit, selling and buying players without major outlay. With so many undisclosed fees, we can only go on websites such as transfermarkt, and I understand they’ve not always 100% accurate, but they do act as a guide. They have Ipswich as making around £2.5m on sales and spending £2.9m. That’s not too bad, but consider that numbers for Scott Fraser, Samy Morsy, Vaclav Hladky and Wes Burns are not included. Then think about the wages, another unknown variable. I’ve had conversations with people who know about Louie Barry, and I’m told if he doesn’t play enough games, his wages could be as high as £10,000 per week. £10,000 per week is the reported money Wigan has paid Charlie Wyke, and their figures are also frightening. They’ve spent £630k without the figures for Steven Humphrys, Jordan Jones and James McClean. None of those will be on £2k a week; I’ll put my house on it.

Wages are the biggest factor, the unknown killer of clubs in many instances. Derby’s transfer fees didn’t look the worst in the Championship, but their wages were suffocating them, and there are some clubs in our division with big wages bills. I recall reports suggesting MK Dons lost as much as £2m in 2019/20, leaving them with a net liability of £13.8m. At one stage, they were spending £107 on wages for every £100 of income. Other clubs have not learned either; I spoke to someone yesterday who told me the Imps had a deal lined up for a former Championship winger, who then saw his wages doubled by another club in our division, one who has suffered a points deduction for financial issues in the past few years. That was before the transfer window closed too; after it, we had a top-line figure in mind for a free agent striker, who saw that doubled by another of our rivals; a club you would consider pretty much the same size as us. Talk about never learning.

since this goal, a salary cap has been and gone – (Courtesy Graham Burrell)

It’s a sad state of affairs when 18 months ago, football had to take a long, hard look at itself. The EFL argued with the Premier League, who clashed with the government about sustaining the game. Clubs furloughed staff, made them redundant and the wage cap was rushed through to help steady the ship and put clubs in a firmer place financially. We’re not even out of the pandemic properly yet, and somehow it has all been forgotten, with certain club’s owners happy to gamble on their future. It is hard not to get drawn in when you’re around a table of high rollers, and everyone else is betting big. Take Portsmouth as an example; they were spending frugally at the start of the summer, looking to manage their bills sustainably and efficiently, but other people’s spending pushed their hand, and now their CEO is happy to admit they’re over budget. The players they’ve brought in are no better than 12 months ago, but they cost more because clubs have inflated the numbers at the top end of the scale. We all feel it, right down to us at Lincoln City.

I don’t think clubs such as Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday should be punished for being bigger than everyone else, but you do have to wonder what the league is coming to when those clubs that are a similar size to Lincoln can spend £10k a week on a striker, or meet Peterborough’s big valuation of Mo Eisa. We’re tenth in the attendance table in our division, which indicates our commercial viability and revenue. MK Dons are 11, Wigan 9, yet both reportedly have budgets well above ours. It might be sustainable, but then fans of Derby said the same a couple of years ago, and look where they are now.

Massively outspending the Imps – Credit Graham Burrell

I’m not saying these clubs will have issues; some will be promoted and their spending justified, but what of the others? What of the clubs who have to spend more to keep up, like us? We’ve gone forwards in terms of outlay, but you could argue backwards in terms of our standing amongst our peers. Also, what of the nine other big spenders from a reported 12 who do not go up? Where does it leave them? Spending even bigger to try next season? Chasing Championship football, just as Derby, Sheff Weds, Bolton and Pompey did in the Championship, to catastrophic effect? In my opinion, yes.

It’s clear many individual clubs learned nothing from the pandemic. They, and their fans, are hiding behind undisclosed fees, hidden wages, and smoke and mirrors to keep their integrity. Some will succeed, but more will not. How long before League One’s relegation battle is routinely affected not by results but financial punishment?