Feature Image available under Creative Commons via wonker
By Ben Harrison
You can read the next four parts of Ben’s Premier League Survival Guide below.
Part 2: Bank the cash and keep the faith
Part 5: Conclusions
If offered today, the majority of fans from three clubs competing in next season’s English Premier League would accept a guaranteed 17th placed finish. Cardiff City, Hull City and Crystal Palace, who were each basking in triumph and glory just a few short weeks ago, will each now be focussed solely on survival.
But what is the best way of ensuring your club avoids relegation first time around?
Recent seasons have seen a number of promoted clubs take different approaches to maintaining their stay in the top flight beyond one season. But there are no easy answers here. For every example that suggests a particular approach is the right one, another indicates it could be a disastrous option.
This in itself highlights just how fine the margins involved in running a football club at the top level really are, and how easy it is for a club to imperceptibly slide from pursuing a responsible strategy of investment or consolidation, to having to bet the house on survival.
Every Friday, I’ll be publishing articles looking at some of the best and worst examples of newly promoted clubs implementing different strategies to stay in the top flight. I begin with two clubs who, upon arriving in the promised land, decided to spend heavily in an attempt to transform their playing squads.
Part 1: Splash the cash and make a great leap forward
Example to follow: Stoke City
One to avoid: QPR
Fueled by excessive talk of the quality gap that exists between the top two tiers of English football, and the financial rewards of competing in the top division, a handful of clubs in recent years have decided to spend significant sums in order to go straight from the top of the Championship, into the top ten of the Premier League.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority have found this extremely difficult to sustain. QPR, the latest club to attempt such a strategy, will begin the 2013/14 season back in the Championship, saddled with mediocre players being paid exorbitant wages, even if they are successful in offloading some of their more valuable playing assets.
Most at the club now freely admit that they tried to do “too much, too soon”. With new owner Tony Fernandes keen to make his mark on the club, he quickly dispensed with the coaching staff that had earned them promotion. Three successive transfer windows have since passed, each characterised by further major changes to either the playing or coaching staff, or both, with large transfer fees and wages outlaid.
Last season they survived on the final day of the season. This year they were essentially relegated by Easter. The turbulence caused by trying to transform the club so quickly has landed them with a bloated squad, blighted by divisions within the dressing room and a lack of leadership and clarity regarding the future direction of the club. The squad seemed to split as disparities in wages between players became apparent, and with no consistent spine to the team, the club went into free fall.
With behind the scenes rows over player recruitment continuing even now, it remains to be seen how quickly they will stabilise in the Championship.
So is splashing the cash a foolhardy strategy best avoided? Stoke City, under the guidance of Chairman Peter Coates and manager Tony Pulis, provide evidence that this may not be the case. Their record indicates that continued investment in player recruitment can lift newly promoted sides up the division, and even provide stability away from regular relegation scraps. But it is expensive and, it seems, will only satisfy fans for so long.
Upon arriving in the Premier League, Pulis sought strength in midfield and attack, as well as pace on the wings. He signed 12 players in total, including spending over £16m on Dave Kitson, Seyi Olofinjana, Abdoulaye Faye, Matthew Etherington and James Beattie. Each of these signings could fit neatly in to Pulis’ direct and robust style, and a 12th place finish in the top division followed.
The following season a net £17m was spent on recruiting players such as Robert Huth and Danny Collins, with 2010 seeing a net £10m spend on the likes of powerful centre forward Kenwyne Jones and pacey winger Jermaine Pennant.
In 2011, Pulis spent a net £16m on new players, including Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios, while in the season just past, Stoke splashed a further £20m net on a further 7 new recruits.
Since gaining promotion, Pulis has overseen the signing of just under 40 players, the selling or releasing of a further 29, with a net transfer spend of £79m in 5 years. During this period, Stoke City have not finished lower than 14th in the Premier League, have reached the final of the FA Cup, and enjoyed a European adventure with some notable successes.
So what has made the difference for Stoke over QPR, and what lessons, if any, are there for this season’s newly promoted clubs?
First, Tony Pulis maintained a very clear playing style that he sought to recruit players into during his time at Stoke, which has proved to be effective, if not particularly pretty. Stoke have consistently been tough to beat, and with the right lines of supply into the box, almost impossible to stop, for much of their time in the Premier League. Such discipline and training ground precision has not been visible at any point during QPR’s stay in the division.
Second, while both clubs have experienced disappointment in some of their recruitment decisions, a key difference can be observed as Pulis has tended to purchase players with proven Premier League experience, who are enjoying their peak performance years (c. 27-30 years old), albeit at a premium. This might reflect a poor Stoke City scouting system but, more likely, it reflects Pulis’ desire to have players at his disposal who know what the league is about physically and who can compete within his style of play.
At QPR, the majority of signings under each of their recent managers have been sourced from overseas, or are players whose best years are likely to have been behind them. And unlike at Stoke, there has been virtually no visible structure, or tactical gameplan behind QPR’s recruitment of new signings.
Third, there has been absolute trust between chairman and manager throughout. While of course it remains to be seen how supportive Coates would have been had Pulis not been getting results, it is undeniable that the two leaders of Stoke City have, until this summer at least, been united in their vision for what would see the club progress. As a result, the manager has been backed to an extraordinary degree, and given the time and financial support he needs to deliver. In appointing Mark Hughes in the manner that the club have (and with Hughes no doubt chastened by his QPR experience), it seems likely this will continue into the future.
Meanwhile in West London, a lack of such clarity of vision and unity of leadership has led QPR down several expensive cul-de-sacs. And the fact that even as teams are due to implement their pre-season programmes, current manager Harry Redknapp is hinting he could be heading for the exit door, show just how much work remains to be done at Loftus Road to remedy this.
So it seems from this brief comparison that, should they so choose, Cardiff, Hull and Crystal Palace could splash the cash and stand a chance of progressing up the Premier League relatively quickly. But spending the money alone will not be enough. It is highly likely that this will only yield results if spending is aligned with tactical certainty, a clear focus in the transfer market, and a unity of leadership and support at the very top of the club. And it will be expensive – Stoke have spent an eye-watering amount, and yet they are by no means guaranteed of their safety next season.
In the next instalment in this series, I will examine two clubs who have taken the opposite approach, and decided to bank their cash and keep faith with their existing squads – Reading and Norwich.
Be sure to check back next Friday.