LOTS of football managers talk about spending their club’s money wisely. Bitter experience ensures Chris Wilder means it.
It is the nature of football fans and sport that we always want better for our teams and increasingly in football, that comes at a cost. Many a club has pushed the boat out just a little further, only to see it swept away.
Wilder is a Sheffield United fan desperate to keep progressing after a start to the Premier League season which has put them fifth. He persuaded the board to spend £22m on Sander Berge but only if they could afford it.
“It’s always done sensibly so as not to put us in a difficult position,” he insists. “I’ve been part of that before, not in terms of signing players but being involved in a club which went through it, and it shatters clubs. It’s a long road back and there’s no way we’d ever want to do that to this football club.”
Technically, the club where Wilder ended his playing career no longer exists. In May, 2008, with Wilder back as manager, Halifax Town were wound up with more than £2m of debt, reforming as a phoenix club.
He moved to Oxford United, 1986 League Cup winners whose financial problems helped dragged them into the Conference by the time Wilder arrived. Next came Northampton Town, where a £10.25m council loan to redevelop Sixfields Stadium is still the subject of a police inquiry into claims of bribery, misconduct in public office, fraud and money laundering.
Every one of our players has got a relegation clause and we won’t sign a player without one.Steve Bettis
Wilder is wary of the Football League crackdown on financial fair play which has seen neighbours Sheffield Wednesday ensnared in fighting a misconduct charge over the sale of Hillsborough.
“Halifax had historical debt and an overspend in the old Fourth Division, signing players for big money,” recalls Wilder. “Travelling on a Chelsea FC coach and overnight stops, it was ridiculous. Northampton was a land deal that went wrong from the former chairman.
“The players don’t really suffer the people who own the club suffer, and so do supporters. It’s important the supporters don’t get carried away because I do see it.
“When Portsmouth won the FA Cup and they were in Europe with 10, 11 players on over 100 grand a week but only getting 18,000 in the ground, with no hospitality to speak of and no other revenue streams, everybody knew it was going to go one way. Next minute they’re in League Two. Portsmouth should never, ever be in League Two with their fanbase and history.”
With its multi-billion television deals, being in the Premier League ought to be a licence to print money. Berge’s was the Blades’ fifth record signing since promotion in the summer. Portsmouth are by no means alone, though, in hitting problems.
“All of a sudden we’ve shown a bit of interest in a player and the value has doubled, trebled,” says Wilder of life in the top-flight. “Steve (Bettis, his chief executive) has had huge experience in and outside football of negotiating so it was over to him and I think he enjoys it! I’m sure I would have cost the club a lot more!”
Most clubs try to protect themselves with clauses cutting a player’s wages by 40 or 50 per cent upon relegation. Top players do not want to sign up to that, or join clubs looking down.
When Sunderland fell out of the Premier League in 2017, Jack Rodwell was the only player without a relegation clause. Now he is at Bramall Lane – with one.
“The initial wage demands is the first challenge because we’ve got a structure we’re not going to rip up,” explains Bettis. “But every one of our players has got a relegation clause and we won’t sign a player without one.
“We’ve had quite lengthy discussions with players and agents about it but we’ve not lost a player to date because of it.”
The numbers may have changed dramatically, but Wilder’s approach remains the same.
“Especially in our first year back in the Premier League, if we get into a bidding war with a lot of Premier League clubs we might lose out,” he reasons.
“Value for money is really important and we’re not embarrassed about bringing Jack Robinson and Jack Rodwell in because it’s good business.
“There’s no points deduction, no fire-sale, no investigations into the club’s dealings, no huge gap between somebody coming into the first team as a younger player and somebody at the top.
“Even last summer we had to be realistic because we were favourites to go down. We signed players we thought could get us back up at the first time of asking if we needed that. But we have got assets. If Oli McBurnie rips it up in the Premier League but we go down, it’s a sensible deal.
“It doesn’t mean if we finish in the top 10 we’ll be going for top five the next season but you’re always looking to improve and sometimes it’s not shown in the table.
“If – when – we all depart we want this club established in the Premier League and here to stay.”