There has been a fair bit of talk about rolling the dice in football below the top flight in recent months. Following failure to secure promotion all sorts of rumours of financial instability emerged at Aston Villa and according to reports they stared into the abyss. Villa have been pulled back from the precipice and early season form illustrates that they will be among the front runners for promotion in a very competitive league this season. As those stories emerged from Villa Park, the revelations from Sid James Park about their financial gamble revealed how close clubs can sail close to the mark. Newcastle had the highest ever wage bill in the championship that season, doubling the wage bill of fellow promoted sides Brighton and Huddersfield. This was only possible with the financial support of owner, Mike Ashley. You may reasonably question why he would do this given his lack of spending in the Fenwick’s transfer window just gone. The answer is quite simple. Profit.
In the season Newcastle went down they had a reported operating loss of over £90m. In the season prior to that, before they offloaded high earners like Sissoko and Wijnaldum they made nearly £1m profit. The fact of the matter is that the roll of the dice to gain promotion to the premier league is worth it...if you win at the table. I have to declare my bias here and say I wouldn’t have shed too many tears if the gamble had failed. In fact, the protests outside Sports Direct and subsequent bizarre behaviour from supporters of the fans from up the road who expect results to satisfy their overtly privileged outlook are a source of constant amusement as they pour scorn on our plight of recent years. Their plight is worse, it always is.
On this occasion their gamble paid off. Sooner or later though a big club is going to gamble and lose and the stakes on that gamble are huge. When Sunderland were relegated from the Premier League they did everything wrong. They kept the high earning average players and loaned the high performing players and Papy out. This close season has witnessed an exodus and a relatively profitable one at that. In actual fact, those protests in Northumberland St with people carrying Sports Direct bags to a Sports Direct protest are amplified in their absurdity because the actions of Ashley are exactly the same actions Stewart Donald has been instilling in Sunderland. Long term sustainability. There are however a few big differences.
Firstly, our fan base has been kicked all over the pavement. We have awoken face down with noses encrusted with blood to find a bloke in red trousers saying, “alright mate, let’s dust you off and get you home. Have a cup of tea.” Newcastle fans still believe they should be competing for the Champions League. Secondly, we have a chairman who openly engages with the fans. Ashley tried this approach. He drank pints with the away fans. Wore the shirt. He was part of the Geordie nation. Until he didn’t piss away his fortune on them. Then he was just that bloke who bought everyone drinks in the pub because he had no mates and his card finally got rejected behind the bar. The final difference is that we are down to a hardcore base of fans who have suffered dismal performance after dismal performance. We have seen fewer goals scored than the elephant man in a nunnery and fewer points scored than the Jamaican bobsled team. Those who turn up these days are there for one reason. It’s in their blood.
A recent study showed that 10 out of the 20 Premier League clubs could have played in empty stadiums for an entire season and still made a profit. Of course, full stadiums are part of the attraction for a television audience but that is frightening. A bigger question may be that given that appeal, should ticket prices actually be as high as they are in the Premier League. If Spurs could make £12.5m profit with an empty stadium, why not sell tickets for a tenner. The answer? Football is a business. It needs to be sustainable as a business first and foremost. Once you have that stability the fans are there to exploit to a certain extent. It’s basic economics of supply and demand. If you can fill a stadium on £30 a ticket, why on earth would you charge £10?
Tonight, we went into a Thursday night match against Sheffield Wednesday in front of one of the lowest attendances for a first team game at the SOL. That’s understandable given our previous plight. I expect a deluge of mockery from up the road for that. And so be it. We lost. But we won’t be threatening to blockade insurance companies. We too have stared into the abyss. We may have even fallen down a ledge or two. We have our scars but we’re on the way back up. Our whole mindset has been changed from the splash the cash mentality to a sustainable model mentality. Ashley will not be at Newcastle forever, nor Donald at Sunderland. But if you roll the dice and lose there’s a chance a great club may fall. I’ll take stability.