By Chris Dunlavy
Recently, I spoke to a man who works in recruitment at one of the Championship’s thriftiest clubs.
In a division poisoned by parachute payments, it isn’t an easy gig. Not for him the pursuit of proven £15m strikers, nor a cosy relationship with superagents who can cherry-pick the cream of the continent.
Freebies, loans, flat-out punts and a regular trawl through European backwaters are his stock-in-trade.
Or were, at least. Coronavirus and its attendant shutdown have kicked the legs from under every football club in Europe.
Even the mighty Barcelona – who in June posted world-record revenues of 990m Euros – are feeling the pinch.
Closer to home, former FA chief executive Mark Palios has warned that a “double figure” number of EFL clubs could be forced into insolvency, echoing the concerns of Luton chairman Gary Sweet.
“I think several clubs, on the basis that they can’t pay contractual wages, will move down the path to a formal insolvency,” he said.
Even if the majority survive, as Palios predicts, they won’t be in any position to go on a shopping spree. The transfer market will become a buyer’s paradise, with supply outstripping demand and fees and wages taking a tumble.
“What’s happened will bring prices right down,” said my recruiter friend. “No question. What was two million quid six weeks ago will be £700,000 now. It suddenly brings a lot more players into the orbit of clubs like ours.”
Should that projection prove accurate, clubs with saleable assets will unfortunately be hit in the pocket.
Reeco Hackett-Fairchild, who joined Portsmouth from Bromley for a club-record £100,000 in January, would be worth just £35,000 in this straightened new world.
And had Josh March, Leamington’s top scorer, been sold after the shutdown, Forest Green might have paid the Brakes just eight grand – not the £25,000 they actually coughed up. Any club that clung to prized players in a gamble on promotion will be cursing their luck today.
Similarly, lowered prices aren’t much use to clubs who no longer exist, nor those who can’t afford to pay anything at all.
To a family on the breadline, a 4K TV is no more affordable on Black Friday than it is at any other time of the year.
Broadly speaking, though, a recalibration of fees and wages has several benefits. One, is a reduction in costs. No club, at any level, will grumble about that.
Prudence and responsible ownership may also get a long overdue payoff. Previously, to operate sustainably was to consign yourself to a life of mediocrity or, at best, a yo-yo existence between two divisions, all whilst being accused of lacking ambition.
Privately – and publicly, in the case of Accrington chairman Andy Holt – the owners at such clubs have expressed their fury at the authorities’ tolerance of loss-making rivals.
Now, nature will do what the regulations would not. Those who stretched themselves far beyond their means, spent a suicidal percentage of turnover on wages and failed to implement any kind of financial buffer will be right in the mire, at least without some form of rescue.
Those who didn’t may find themselves in the unusual position of being able to both keep their best assets and even outbid traditional heavyweights for sought-after players.
Clubs like Accrington, Burton and Barnsley may not inherit the earth, but they may clamber a few rungs up the food chain before football’s natural order reasserts itself.
And remember, if you don’t have money, you can’t buy players. That could give youngsters at every level a break they may never have had.
In 2005, Stockport County lay at death’s door, their bank account rinsed and morale in the gutter. Even if the Hatters could have afforded it, no player in their right mind would have risked his reputation on a team nine points adrift at the foot of the EFL.
So manager Jim Gannon turned inward, looked to youth and unleashed a team that included Ashley Williams, Anthony Pilkington and Tommy Rowe. Within 18 months, they had risen to League One.
It is a fine example of what young players can do given an opportunity, and an illustration that reputations and big wages aren’t the only barometer of quality.
For the young, the poor, and all those trampled underfoot by football’s headlong rush towards Premier League riches, the chaos wrought by coronavirus could prove a deus ex machina, ending many of their problems at a stroke. At least, that is, if they survive.
By Chris Dunlavy