The vast financial gulf between the Championship and the Premier League means that promoted clubs will usually struggle once they’re up.
Fulham have been the Championship’s team of the season by a country mile. They’ve scored 90 goals in 37 matches, with Aleksander Mitrovic having broken Ivan Toney’s goalscoring record with 14 games still to play. They’ve scored four goals in a match four times and five, six and seven goals twice each. There have been times when they have been irresistible.
On Saturday, they travelled to third from bottom Barnsley and needed a late equaliser to salvage a 1-1 draw, having fallen behind to a penalty that shouldn’t have been given. On Wednesday night, they travelled to West Brom. Albion had been promotion contenders themselves until a dreadful run, which saw Valerien Ismael replaced by Steve Bruce and the team plummet to mid-table. So of course they won by a goal to nil.
One of these days the Championship will start to make sense, but it’s not going to be this season.
Fulham, who had won 10 in 13 games, lose and manage only one shot on target to West Brom, who won 1 game in 9.
— The Second Tier (@secondtierpod) March 15, 2022
Regardless of this little blip, Fulham will still almost certainly return to the Premier League. They remain 14 points clear of third place and that team, Huddersfield Town, have played a game more. But West Brom and Sheffield United, the other two relegated teams from the Premier League at the end of last season, are making harder work of going straight back up, despite the huge advantage of Premier League parachute money.
It would be foolish at this point to insist that either of these two clubs won’t go up this season. Sheffield United endured a dismal start but have recovered under Paul Heckingbottom, who after 17 matches has the best win percentage rate of any permanent manager in the club’s entire history. They’re ninth, but just a point off a play-off place. West Brom are down in 12th, but even they’re only six points off a play-off place. But neither are among the front-runners at present, though that could change at any time.
Inconsistency has become the division’s hallmark in recent years and almost everybody is vulnerable. Even Huddersfield in third are only four points from falling out of the play-off places altogether; anybody who gets a case of the yips will likely find themselves being quickly overtaken. But for all of the fun of this undignified scramble for a shot at a play-off place – and at this time of the year it can almost feel forgotten that three of the four who make the play-offs will still be playing at this level next season – the fact that the race for promotion can look like this also says something quite profound about the gap between the top of the Championship and the bottom of the Premier League.
Fulham haven’t played in the same division for two consecutive seasons since 2017/18. Up, down, up, down, probably up. But then what happens next campaign? Because history is showing a bit of a pattern there. None of this is meant as a criticism of Fulham, who are a well-run club. Marco Silva may well pass two of his former charges on his way up, should Everton and Watford be relegated from the Premier League. But they are in the position that they’re in; no-one would suggest they should try to break the bank to try and ‘crack’ the Premier League and finish in, say, the top half. Everybody knows what the costs of overspending can be if they don’t bear the fruit they’re expected to.
The reason for this discrepancy is financial, and these financial differences can be huge. The lowest amount of money a team will make in TV and prize money from a season in the Premier League is around £100m. Parachute payments are a little more complex. Relegated teams receive 55% of the amount that each top-flight club receives as part of its equal share of broadcast revenue, which equates to roughly £40m. This percentage is reduced to 45% for the second year (roughly £35m) and then to 20% in the third year (roughly £15m). The only exclusion is that teams that have been relegated from the Premier League after just one season only receive two years’ worth. Second-placed Bournemouth are in their second year of receiving them.
By comparison, Championship clubs not in receipt of parachute payments receive between £7m and £9m a year in TV money. Small wonder the wage bills of some clubs in the division are multiple times those of others. And this is not just a problem for the Championship, it’s also one for the Premier League. Every season there will be a clutch of clubs at the foot of the table who don’t – most of the time – look good enough to be there. And the level of imbalance between the bottom and the rest of the Premier League is reaching a point at which some matches are starting to resemble exhibitions rather than actual sporting contests.
This isn’t – and it’s worth saying this because when the Very Online get hold of this subject, they tend to do little more than victim-blame – the fault of the clubs. These teams don’t just hire idiots who don’t know what they’re doing and leave them to appoint people who are objectively bad at football. Their options are more limited. They have an eight-game longer season than in the Premier League, and they have to walk this delicate balancing act with the threat of EFL Financial Fair Play regulations lurking in the background. The less money a club has, the less room for error they have.
All professional footballers do come with an element of risk to the club concerned when they sign a contract. Some players just fail to gel. Some get injured, or may have confidence or mental health issues. And it is right that player incomes remain the responsibility of clubs, regardless of whether any of the aforementioned may be happening. But that doesn’t butter many parsnips at ten to five on a Saturday afternoon, when you’ve just lost 3-0 for the third week in a row.
Of course, we’ve all seen the horrific wages to turnover ratios. And we’ve all seen the points deductions for failing EFL Financial Fair Play regulations. But to paint Championship clubs as innocent victims in the financial football jungle would also be slightly misleading, because Championship clubs dominate the EFL’s television contract in much the same way as the Premier League dominates overall. Overspending is rampant because wages have become an arms race. The whole system is ultimately a huge mess, so distorted that it’s reasonable to conclude that this inequality is by design. And on the whole, clubs, fans, everybody, even in this highly febrile, angry age, just kind of… puts up with it.
But it’s not all bad news; just because this is the way of things now, doesn’t mean that it’ll be the way of things forever. It was being reported towards the end of last year that the Premier League and the EFL were in talks about their possible abolition. An independent regulator may further close that financial gap, but the lobbying against that has been fierce and what any of that might look like should it ever get to the point of becoming law remains unknown. And clubs can occasionally defy the odds. Brentford seem likely to avoid relegation this season, while the recipients of parachute payments in the Championship clearly haven’t rendered competition a thing of the past in that division.
Perhaps Fulham will be able to break their up-down cycle in the Premier League. They can hardly be accused of being unambitious. A new stand at Craven Cottage is approaching completion, while they’ve been reported as having targeted 12-cap Italy international Alessio Romagnoli, who’s played almost 200 games for Milan, including 18 this season. And perhaps Luton Town, Millwall or Queens Park Rangers will come through the pack and snatch it in the play-offs. Getting rid of parachute payments would be a start in terms of levelling things up a bit within the Championship, but the gap to the Premier League would remain regardless. It can be bridged, but it’ll be difficult even for Fulham, no matter how impressive they’ve looked.