Aston Villa’s one-nil defeat to Fulham in the Play-Off Final has left the club facing yet another arduous season in the Championship. For a club with the history and tradition of Villa, this reality will hurt as they once again find themselves locked out of English football’s elite league. Villa, which is now facing a near-existential financial crisis, will be hoping for another competitive season next year, as their parachute payments begin to dry up.
The playoff final result also means that the Premier League has gained yet another small club in its ranks. Fulham now add to a growing trend which has crept forward in the shadow of the big money flooding into the English game.
For years it was the big four, now it is the top six. But whichever terminology is used, we all know who we’re referring to. If you are not lucky enough to be part of the elite band, then chances are you don’t have the elite players. If a club does have a lucky ace up it’s sleeve, you can be sure they will struggle to keep hold of said player for a lengthy period of time. As decent-sized clubs have fallen into this trap, they have entered an cycle of decline. Some have to yet to recover as the tentacles of relegation entangled them.
Fair-to-middling, not the place to be
Since the inaugural Premier League season, one-by-one we have seen England’s former fair-to-middling sized clubs fall by the wayside. Even clubs that can reasonably be considered “big” have suffered. From Nottingham Forrest in 1993 to Villa in 2016, and a lot in between, these clubs have been sucked into a whirlpool of poor results, lacking the quality players capable of saving them from demotion, and the inevitable wilderness that follows.
For years, clubs like Aston Villa, Coventry City, Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton and Leeds seemed like solid oaks in the forest of the elite league in England. Good-sized fan bases from big towns and cities, decent stadia, a smattering of reasonably gifted players, and, crucially, not such a gulf between them and the rest, all contributed to their relative safety. Even if results turned, a manager would be given time to turn things around as the spectre of relegation wasn’t seen as the commercial catastrophe it is today.
In the nine seasons between 1992/93 and 2000-01 there were on average seven managerial casualties a season, and you also have to factor in that for three of those seasons, there were actually twenty-two Premier League clubs. The point is, things were more stable as the Premier League was yet to mature into the financial maelstrom it is today.
As the twentieth century became the twenty first, the Premier League television money really began to swell. With the breaking of the billion pound barrier for 2001-04, football clubs also began to slowly change and evolve. Analysts and marketing gurus must have anticipated the growth, and, with this, Premier League clubs got ever more twitchy and keen to keep their slice of the wealth. As the fear grew of missing out on this money, so too did the frequency of managerial sackings, and previously stable clubs like Villa, Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland fell into disrepair.
The elite drift away as smaller clubs fill the void
As these mid-sized clubs fall by the wayside, a new and interesting phenomenon has emerged of smaller clubs hitting the big time and holding their own. Fulham, Bolton and Blackburn all survived in 2002, as clubs like Nottingham Forrest and Sheffield Wednesday bit the dust in the preceding years. Neither returned, but the former three survived for a decade each in the top flight, despite their smaller gates and modest incomes.
Small sides reaching the Premier League is nothing new, as Swindon, Barnsley and Bradford fans can testify. However few had the capacity to survive in the big time. As the money was distributed though, this changed. Clubs felt emboldened to take a risk or two if they survived their first season, better plays could be signed, enticed by good wages and an exciting league.
The trend has continued and going into next season, the Premier League now has eight clubs that could be branded as “smaller” in comparison to their predecessors in the league. Burnley, Huddersfield, Watford, Bournemouth, Fulham, Brighton, Cardiff and Palace are all clubs with smaller grounds, less history and from comparatively smaller catchment areas. They now make up almost half of the teams in the league.
To brand these clubs as small runs the risk of being horribly patronising and dismissive. Their achievements of not only reaching the Premier League, but staying and building a base of decent players is staggering, but not without consequences.
Outside the elite, the standard has dipped off quite dramatically. 17/18 saw Newcastle, once title challengers, gratefully reach 10th place with just forty-four points. Despite mid-table safety, they were only eleven points clear of relegated Swansea. Has the number of smaller, less competitive clubs gradually brought the standard down? The evidence is there: Southampton stayed up with just seven wins, whilst Huddersfield survived off twenty-eight goals.
Would larger clubs, with more financial clout and appeal to better players, be able to bring an improved standard to the Premier League outside the top six?
Expectation and freedom
The Championship is littered with former stalwarts of the top division. Moreover, the fan bases of these clubs have likely grown up or had their parents grow up, watching their beloved teams play the big boys and sometimes even challenge them. Their fans will want the good times back regardless of the financial limitations or restrictions of their playing staff. Some of these fair-sized clubs do, from time-to-time, hit the jackpot and secure a return to the Premier League.
Wolves’ brief spell between 2009 and 2012 is a cautionary tale of this bloated expectation. They did twice achieve survival under Mick McCarthy. This was not used as the platform it should have been though, as the fans demanded more, despite their modest achievements. The board once again got twitchy as results turned, leading to McCarthy’s sacking and no realistic options to replace him as relegation beckoned. There is an argument to suggest that this overbearing and unrealistic expectation has hindered these mid-sized clubs whether in or out of the Premier League.
There is a flip side to this though, as some clubs have been pinching themselves as they touch down in the Premier League. Bournemouth are a great example of this. A small club and veteran of the hand-to-mouth existence of the lower leagues, their survival in the Premier League is remarkable. Furthermore, they have never once flirted with sacking Eddie Howe, even after a poor start last season which left them in the bottom three. The club have an ethos of playing good football and are uncompromising in their approach. Surviving on gates of barely eleven thousand has also been a unique experience in the modern Premier League era.
The Bournemouth lesson is one that clearly shows a club operating without the burden of expectation. There is some freedom in this, and granted, a lot less pressure. All the same, it’s a great success story as far bigger clubs have floundered while they have survived. Perhaps some of these other clubs should unburden themselves and focus on football rather than pragmatism and desperation for a slice of the TV revenue.
Still an elite division?
Outside the top six clubs, the quality has bled away. With fewer quality sides able to challenge, a widening gulf has opened up between the big clubs and the rest. Moreover, competition has dipped as the focus of most clubs becomes survival.
Interestingly, if we were to compare the seventh to twentieth placed sides in the 1992-93 season to the sides finishing in those places last season, we see a massive shift in the distribution of honours and success. Clubs finishing between 7th and 20thin 1993 had won eighty-five major trophies between them, this season the number is down to forty-eight, and twenty-three if you took out Everton and Newcastle.
The big difference between now and then, has been the seismic shift of the elite clubs and their seemingly cemented places in the top spots. Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester City were all adrift in 1992-93, but have slowly pulled away from the rest, joining Liverpool and Manchester United at the top.
With the rest of the league now adrift and smattered with traditionally smaller clubs, is it even right the call the Premier League an elite division? Monetarily yes, it still is and the top six clubs provide wonderful quality with the added bonus of the unpredictability of certain results. Leicester City surprised us all in 2016 and Burnley have somehow projected themselves into 7th place this season. In reality, they just chunks of light in an otherwise dim room for competition.
As the traditionally bigger clubs have been eroded out of the Premier League, they have fallen behind financially. We now have clubs like Leeds losing their best players to Burnley and Watford. Great as it is for these sides to have their moments, the paradox, remains for the Premier League, as the money has gone in, the talented few have been sealed off. True competition, where a decent and honest bunch of players can regularly make a challenge at the top, is sadly a mere impossibility.