BIG Budget, big players, big prizes. Isn’t that how football works in the era of the oligarch and the Emirati?
Sadly, it usually is. If your players drive to work in Ford Fiestas whilst theirs are rocking Mercs, you’ll probably be eating dust by May.
Statistics don’t lie. List any division’s clubs in order of wages paid and the result will invariably look very similar to the final league table.
In last season’s Premier League, the seven biggest spenders took the top seven spots. Two of the three poorest – Hull and Middlesbrough – went down.
Likewise, my former colleague Stuart Hammonds once asked every chairman in the National League to reveal their club’s wage bill to the nearest £50,000. After everyone had coughed up, the subsequent table was a near-perfect reflection of the mid-season standings.
Money talks. Forest Green Rovers play on a hilltop in Stroud. Chelsea strut their stuff on the Kings Road. But, ultimately, they are exactly the same.
So should everyone else simply pack up and go home? Lay down on the tarmac and wait for the steamroller to do its worst?
Not quite yet. Because for all the brute force of banknotes and billionaires, nothing will ever beat a slick system and players who believe in it.
For much of the past ten months, I’ve covered Huddersfield Town, the 49th and newest member of the Premier League.
To put that promotion into perspective, the Terriers began the campaign with the fourth-lowest wage bill in the entire Championship. In June, bookies priced them at 15/2 for relegation. Yet in David Wagner, Huddersfield had a trump card.
The German implemented high-tempo pressing football, signed (cheap) players and loanees to make it work, then spent pre-season honing iron-man levels of fitness.
After two games, they beat Newcastle at St James’ Park. After four, they climbed top of the table.
‘Is it realistic to stay in this position?’ I asked Wagner in September. “No,” he said. “But if you ask me ‘Is it possible?’ then the answer is yes.”
No limits. No targets. Publicly and privately, this became Wagner’s mantra. Nutrition was tweaked. Training times moved to mirror kick-off times. Each change was an incremental, cost-free advantage.
Results flowed. Confidence – both in themselves and the style of play – coursed through previously average players like Nahki Wells and Tommy Smith. The whole thing snowballed. So can Wagner’s methods be scaled to achieve success at any level?
In fairness, Huddersfield were generously backed. Owner Dean Hoyle is a multi-millionaire and lifelong fan. Last season, he covered losses of £5m and subsidised cut-price season tickets to boost gates by 30 per cent. He also employed one of the country’s brightest sporting directors in Stuart Webber. Not everyone is so lucky.
Yet even after Hoyle’s input, Huddersfield still faced – and overcame – a vast financial disadvantage. And you know what? Ten years ago I watched Gary Waddock’s Aldershot do exactly the same thing.
Like Huddersfield, they began the season as rank outsiders with a rookie manager. Like Huddersfield, their budget was minimal by comparison to the likes of Oxford and Cambridge. But, like Huddersfield, they played fast, attacking football and altered their style for nobody.
Scott Davies was their Aaron Mooy – an under-the-radar loan signing who became the heartbeat of the side – John Grant was turned from journeyman to dangerman with a career-best 25 goals, Anthony Charles had the season of his life at centre-half.
If that side had played today, they’d still have smashed through the 100-point barrier. Such is the power of believing in a plan.
Hoyle employed Wagner because he had grown tired of managers who simply played for the next result. Who believed the only way to improve was to sign better players, like a live-action game of Football Manager.
He wanted a vision, an ethos, a man who could coach rather than buy, success. For any cash-strapped owner – at any level – finding a manager with those qualities is surely their single most important task.