Football’s £120m game – but does money guarantee success?

Image available under Creative Commons via Øyvind Vik

Image available under Creative Commons via Øyvind Vik

Billed as the most lucrative game in world football, the Championship play-off final this weekend determined the final team to join England’s footballing elite for next season.

The game’s value is an estimated £120m for this year’s victors Crystal Palace, thanks to the astronomical sums of money being offered as part of a new look Premier League TV deal.

The gulf between the top and the second tier of English football has never been so wide, and the pressure will be on Crystal Palace to be armed and ready to spend what they can to avoid dropping straight back down.

To allude to everyone’s favourite web-slinging masked vigilante (no, not Jonás Gutiérrez) ‘With great transfer kitty, comes great expectation’. Or something like that, I can’t quite remember. Fans are now more aware than ever their respective clubs have Delboy style money clips burning holes in their chairman’s pocket. But getting back to the Spider-Man analogy, those spending must show ‘great responsibility’ with this wealth.

Two teams going in the opposite direction illustrate two vastly contrasting approaches to staying in the Premier League. Both had managers sacked mid-campaign, but both had very different transfer policies.

Reading perhaps showed too much conservatism in their spending, their only significant incoming transfer was Pavel Pogrebnyak, personally courted by Royals owner Anton Zingarevich. But that was largely it. Was the intended strategy to rely on his 10-15 goals to keep them up? The last time Crystal Palace graced the Premier League, Andy Johnson destroyed defences, notching 21 goals in a superb personal season. Palace were still relegated that year.

QPR, it’s fair to say, vastly overspent, possibly most significantly on wages, creating a huge dressing room split between those on modest salaries and those brought in out of panic in January. Similar in some senses to the infamous Real Madrid ‘Los Galaticos’ failure of the last decade, it begs the question of whether big money thrown at ‘individuals’ can really breed sustainable success?

In more recent times in La Liga, Malaga have emerged as the latest project bankrolled by a billionaire. However, early optimism soon soured as owner Sheikh Abdullah al Thani disappeared leaving months worth of unpaid wages, forcing departures which saw immense talent Santi Cazorla leaving for a fraction of his market worth just to keep the lights on. Some of their financial issues have now receded, allowing them to finish 4th in the 2011/12 campaign. Big name players were brought in and, in fairness, delivered what was hoped: a ticket to the most elite and money-laden competition in the world, the Champions League.

This season, playmaker Isco has shone, his displays helping Malaga to a respectable 6th in the table, coupled with an impressive run to the quarter finals of the Champions League, thwarted only by a crazy last ten minutes at Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion.

Dortmund, by contrast, have achieved consistent success under the tenure of the charismatic Jurgen Klopp, ‘on a shoestring’. I mean shoestring in relation to the other teams who reached the quarter finals of this year’s Champions League. Perhaps a velvet shoestring, with gold trim and studded in diamonds. But a shoestring nevertheless. They may have finished runners-up at Wembley on Saturday, and in the Bundesliga to rivals Bayern, but two leagues back-to-back in the previous two seasons should provide the financially-savvy Dortmund plenty of optimism for the future.

Qatar-based investment has brought the Ligue 1 title back to 90’s French footballing powerhouse PSG. Marquee signings have been plucked from across the globe and have delivered. Meanwhile, newly promoted Monaco are set to give PSG a literal run for their money after securing the signings of Porto’s Moutinho and James Rodriguez. If they add the rumoured transfer of Falcao to their ranks, they may become title challengers almost overnight. Time will tell.

What do these examples tell us? For wealthy clubs to succeed, they must also have a strong infrastructure and enough knowledgable footballing men running the football side. Even with this is place it can never be guaranteed, which is why a meticulously planned business model needs to be in place, alongside realistic expectations. ‘Too much, too soon’ could send clubs the direction of Portsmouth. Ill-planned spending nearly took the club to the brink of extinction 4 years after winning the FA Cup.

Having edged today’s game, Crystal Palace are about to land on a “different planet”, as their manager Ian Holloway put it. Now they need to adapt in order to survive. Spending money alone will not guarantee them success, but doing so sensibly may put them in the mix to survive in 2014.


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