Sheffield Wednesday fans had been warned.
Shortly before last Christmas, owner Dejphon Chansiri told a fans’s forum: “If we don’t go up soon, we will break (the Football League’s financial fair play rules).”
Chansiri thought he had found a loophole in regulations designed to stop clubs spending beyond their means. His company, Sheffield 3, bought Hillsborough for £60m, allowing the club to turn a £2.58m profit for 2017-18. Whether he has succeeded or not will be put to the test after Wednesday were charged with breaching EFL rules relating to FFP last week. There are rumblings about similar transactions at Derby County, Aston Villa and Reading.
The Owls, who will “vigorously defend” themselves, could be forgiven for feeling singled out even though at that same forum, Chansiri admitted: “We broke (the Football League’s “profitability and sustainability”) rules a lot: eight figures high.”
Wages hit £564,000 a week, 126 per cent of the turnover.
Different governing bodies have differing versions of “financial fair play” (FFP), but the Football League have more need for it than most. Every new Premier League television deal brings predictions it will be the last before the bubble bursts, yet somehow the chasm between its 20 clubs and the rest widens.
Ambition drives sport, recklessness ruins its clubs.Stuart Rayner
It is a concern for European leagues whose clubs are trying to compete, but an even bigger one for the league that has to pick up the pieces when things go wrong.
Peter Ridsdale “living the dream” until it became a nightmare at Leeds United was a warning that is largely starting to be heeded, but the temptation to gamble remains.
Leeds fans would have liked more summer investment in the squad but the Whites decided it was more important to retain Marcelo Bielsa and his coaching staff than to spending big on new players. Had they replaced £7m Kemar Roofe with a more potent striker, automatic promotion might be more likely.
Then again perhaps not, because what most if not all the clubs sailing closest to the FFP wind have in common is pushing the boat out on what they thought were sure-fire signings. Middlesbrough, whose chairman Steve Gibson is a very vocal FFP supporter, have had their extravagances, but are now cutting their cloth more sparingly.
Before FFP was even thought of they were big spenders under Bryan Robson, and tried under Garry Monk – now at Hillsborough – to “smash” their way back after Premier League relegation.
Having failed, they are now reining in, resulting in a relegation battle. Below them, Barnsley reinvested little of the money brought in for selling key members of their League One promotion-winning side.
Bradford City spent heavily on wages last season to try to get out of League One and did, but not in the direction they hoped. In the summer they loaned Eoin Doyle out to make space for League Two recruits and have seen him become the division’s top-scorer at Swindon Town.
Had the big fees Boro and the Owls spent on the likes of Jordan Rhodes been rewarded with promotion, they would have been all right.
As it is, Wednesday have a £10m striker who has started one game for them – in this season’s League Cup – since April 2018 taking up a big chunk of the wage bill. There are similar stories at most clubs who have spent big and failed in recent years.
Bournemouth made the gamble work. From the Championship, the £4.75m fine they paid after their wages hit 235 per cent of turnover in 2015 would have been a big hit, but having won their way onto the Premier League gravy train, they could comfortably afford it.
Can other clubs be blamed for believing they can do the same? Should only the traditional big clubs be allowed to flaunt wealth? Ambition drives sport, the problem is that recklessness ruins its clubs.
Should the Football League turn its nose up at billionaires wanting to make themselves instant millionaires by throwing money at down-at-heel football clubs?
The issue is what happens when the owner, then the taps, are turned off. But few Leeds fans reacted to news that the owners of Paris Saint-Germain are interested in injecting cash into Elland Road by telling them to put their wallets away.
The League allows £39m of debt over three years. This, apparently, constitutes running their businesses properly. Wednesday lost £9.8m and £20.8m in the previous two seasons and, but for Hillsborough’s sale, would have posted a pre-tax loss of £35.4m for 2017-18.
As for what action they face, or even how quickly, we are somewhat in the dark.
In March, Birmingham City were deducted nine points for breaking profitability and sustainability rules, but the Owls have been charged with misconduct. Anything from a reprimand to expulsion is on the table. Fining a club for being too deeply in debt would seem counter-intuitive. A points deduction of up to 21 points appears most likely.
With an independent disciplinary commission due to examine the charges next, it is unlikely to be a speedy process. It took four years resolving the case which eventually saw Queens Park Rangers fined nearly £42m, to be paid back over 10 years.
When the verdict finally comes it will serve as a reminder – when some supporters accuse their clubs of “lacking ambition”, there may be good reasons for it.