Preparing for relegation

As premature as it sounds writing a post about relegation in December, the reality of the situation dictates that it is now not only a possibility, it is a near certainty. A dismal festive season has ensured Blackpool remain rooted to the foot of the Championship and a nine point gap separates Lee Clark’s side from 21st place. Over half the season has now been played and the club have managed to amass just 14 points. By any reasonable measure, it’s a tally worthy of a team set for relegation.

What it will take to get out

Writing off the season at this point will seem much too early to some, so it’s worth examining just what it will take to survive. For 21 of the last 22 seasons, there have been three teams relegated from a 24 team second tier – 1994/95 saw a re-organisation of the leagues which meant four teams were relegated that season, so the numbers from that year have been excluded. Looking at the remaining 21 seasons, the highest of the relegated teams, finishing in 22nd place, have scored an average of 47.62 points. For the sake of this exercise, I have also ignored any points deductions from the historical data.

With that in mind, it seems that 48 points is the absolute minimum target to aim for. That said, in eight of the 21 seasons in questions, teams have been relegated with more than 48 points, and in 2012/13 Peterborough were relegated with as many as 54. On the flip side, there have been three occasions when just 42 points have been the most scored by the highest-achieving relegated side. Therefore, to assess what Blackpool need to do in their remaining 22 fixtures, it seems fair enough to work on the average.

As things stand, ‘Pool are currently 34 points shy of that 48 point target. With 22 games left that means a return of 1.55 points per game. If you extrapolate that over a full 46 game season, you’re faced with 71.09 points which is more or less play-off form, if at the lower end of the typical points required for a top six finish. Can Blackpool realistically get 10 wins and four draws from the remaining 22 matches? The last batch of 35 points accumulated by the Seasiders spanned an incredible 56 games, so managing that same number from only 22 fixtures seems unlikely.

And even if such a feat were possible, there’s no guarantee that 48 points will be enough. You can concoct a variety of different combination of results to try and work out how Blackpool can survive, but by now most have accepted it’s a fool’s errand. Throw in the extra complications of a squad that could be decimated in the next few weeks when a number of loans and short-term contracts come to an end, it’s virtually a lost cause. Blackpool are going to be relegated and the pertinent question now, is how will that impact the club next season?

Counting the cost of relegation

Financially, a drop to League One would deal the club a massive blow. It’s a drop that can be hard to take for a lot of teams relegated from the Championship given the difference in revenue, but for Blackpool it will be even more telling. This season the club will be in receipt of its last parachute payment from its sole Premier League season, which makes the likely fall in revenue a catastrophic one.

Blackpool Football Club Limited’s revenue in the first season post-relegation (2011/12) from the Premier League was around £28.8m and the season after (2012/13) it was roughly £22m. The way that the £48m of parachute payments, spread over four seasons, are distributed is something of a mystery, but in the two years of accounts to be made public so far, the club had received roughly £28m, which leaves around £20m to be spread across 2013/14 and 2014/15. Either way, the club’s revenue for those two seasons is likely to be somewhere between £16m and £20m,

Forecasting revenue for a 2015/16 season in League One yields a figure which is dwarfed by those which have gone before in recent years. To help get a flavour of turnover in League One, I’ve examined a sample of clubs from the 2012/13 season, which covers the most recently available accounts. Below is a chart of 13 League One clubs from that season, the ones that just happened to be the easiest to obtain figures for, ordered by their average attendances that season:

League One 2012/13 - turnover and attendances
League One 2012/13 – turnover and attendances

As you can see, there’s a fairly strong correlation between turnover and average attendances, as you might expect, and the only real outlier to any extent is Walsall who managed a turnover larger than you might anticipate based on their crowds. Where there is less correlation however is in the link between turnover and final league position. Doncaster and Bournemouth had above average revenue, but were able to outperform the likes of Sheffield United, Coventry and Preston who all should have had more resources at their disposal.

Predicting the turnover Blackpool are likely to achieve in 2015/16 depends greatly on the number of fans through the turnstiles then, and it’s believed that as many as 4,000 season tickets have been sold in advance on the two year scheme announced this past summer. Following a relegation and a continuance of supporter unrest, it’s difficult to imagine more than 5,500 total home fans each week, and even that is likely to be on the optimistic side of things. Away followings in League One depend on the sides in the division in any given season, but a league average of around 500 isn’t that far off the mark.

Factoring in the above assumptions, as things stand a 6,000 average attendance probably isn’t going to be too far off the mark, give or take 15% perhaps. But to work out what that translates into in terms of revenue, one needs to remember that the 4,000 season tickets sold in advance have been sold at a below market rate, certainly below what other League One fans will be paying for their tickets, at only £195.30 for adult and senior tickets, less for juniors and completely free for the under eights.

It’s entirely plausible then that the turnover for a 2015/16 season spent in League One could be as low as £3m-£3.5m. That would likely put Blackpool in the bottom third of the division for turnover, and as such give the club limited resources with which to mount a promotion bid back to the second tier. But hang on, what about all that cash sat in the bank we keep hearing about? Couldn’t we just use that to blow everyone else’s budget out of the water and storm to the title? Well, it’s not quite that simple…

Salary Cost Management Protocol (SCMP)

As of 2004/05, the lower levels of the Football League have been subject to some form of financial fair play regulation, but since 2011/12 these rules have been much more stringently enforced in Leagues One and Two – the main regulation is called the Salary Cost Management Protocol. League One clubs can spend a maximum of 60% of their turnover on player wages. So even if turnover in a third tier 2015/16 season was as high as £3.5m, that would only give the club £2.1m to play with on the wage bill.

The punishment for exceeding the cap is a transfer embargo, and unlike Championship regulations the embargo is not retrospective but based on planned spending which clubs have to submit to the Football League. Any planned budgets that are within 5% of the cap are investigated with closer scrutiny.

In 2011/12 and 2012/13 the club had a wage bill in excess of £9m – the figures for 2013/14 and the current season will not be known for some time – but a drop to £2.1m is enormous. The quality available at those levels will be thin on the ground, thinner than even we’re used to of late. But is there any way around this regulation to allo for a bigger budget? Well, deductions can be made for any players out on loan in that period, and players under 20 that have come through the club’s own youth academy are also excluded from the calculations. The amounts involved here though are likely to be minimal.

The allowances for relegated clubs are also going to be no help to Blackpool. The website contains the following snippet:

“The rules apply to all clubs and there is no moratorium for clubs relegated from the Championship. However, Transitional Arrangements are in place whereby clubs are allowed to exclude the wage costs of all players that the club signed pre September of the relegation season, if they were signed on contracts in excess of 3 seasons.”

See what I mean? Given the recent approach to squad building at Bloomfield Road, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see no players retained from the current season and get to June or July with no players on the books, so a ruling that excludes players with contracts longer than three years signed prior to relegation is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.

The only other option that remains as a means to inflate the potential wage bill is to increase the turnover. Without a change of ownership, attendances are likely to drop to the levels already discussed within this post, and it’s hard to imagine any sponsorship deals being significant either given the recent problems at Bloomfield Road. Once again, we return to the SCMP regulations to look for a loophole:

“Crucially, the FL Turnover figure includes donations from the owners to the club and injections of equity. Loans from club owners are understandably not included in the Turnover figure as these would result in growing club debts. up club debts.  In League 1 and League 2, a wealthy owner can therefore fund the club spending in a way that is not permitted in other divisions.”

Hallelujah! A way out for our owners to boost the wage bill so that Blackpool can be competitive if they should find themselves in League One for the 2015/16 campaign. Perhaps there’s an amount sitting elsewhere within the Oyston group of companies, just waiting to be gifted back to the club, maybe in the region of something like £11m? I’m not sure why I picked that figure, but it’s just the first one that came into my head. If you were to add a hypothetical sum of £11m to the predicted £3m or so turnover, under the 60% cap this would provide a wage budget of around £8.5m which would probably be the highest in the division. Things would be looking up then, right?

It’s fair to say that the above scenario is hard to imagine though, and not even the most optimistic of optimists could play devil’s advocate and argue it is even a remote possibility. So, as and when relegation is confirmed, we have to accept that we could be looking at a second consecutive relegation battle, based on the likely available budget. Grim doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Where we go from here

Bearing in mind the hardship that a return to the lower leagues of English football is likely to bring, a miraculous survival is what every Blackpool fan must be wishing for, but there is some serious blind faith required to think it can happen. You never know, there might be someone out there who genuinely thinks Lee Clark really can unite the team against all the naysayers, myself included, and go on to prove everyone wrong by keeping ‘Pool in the Championship.

Then again, it was only a couple of weeks ago we were all told about this fantastic spirit in the camp and that everyone is so much happier now José Riga has gone. Since that time, we’ve had Andrea Orlandi’s weekly column of gloom, Nile Ranger’s ongoing idiocy, a disease that seems to be contagious following Jacob Murphy’s Snapchat antics and most damning of all, precious little in the way of victories.

Lee Clark has now had 10 games in charge and won just one of them, taking only eight points. The improvement that Karl Oyston hoped for when making the managerial change hasn’t really materialised. Has there really been any benefit in getting rid of Riga? Clark has complained of having to effectively do a pre-season in September, but fails to acknowledge this is an issue he has partly brought upon himself.

The exclusion of the likes of the Oriol brothers and Jeffrey Rentmeister seems odd, especially when you consider that their replacements – Tom Kennedy, Nyron Nosworthy, Darren O’Dea, Charles Dunne and Stuart O’Keefe to name a few examples – are more of a downgrade than anything. Throw in the fact that at least the Oriols and Rentmeisters of this squad were heading towards something resembling fitness and gaining some cohesiveness as a team unit, ripping that up to bring in less able, unfit journeymen seems a baffling call.

To compound the misery, the next couple of weeks sees a number of players run out of contract or return to their parent clubs after the end of their loan spells. What will the strategy be from here on in? In some ways, retaining them, or trying to discover better replacements almost feels like going after a lost cause. The amount of ground Blackpool need to make up at this point is so large that it seems difficult to advocate throwing money at it in January. Won’t it simply be too little too late?

From here on in, it would be nicer to see more game time for Blackpool’s bright young players, such as Dom Telford and Mark Waddington who made a decent impression against Rotherham. There are also other youngsters who could do no worse than many who have featured this season, but the club need to find a balance between blooding youth and damaging their confidence playing in a losing team week-in week-out. It of course remains to be seen whether Blackpool will actually try to retain these players in the summer, so hopeless was the effort made to hang onto Harrison McGahey and Connor Hunt six months ago, but the young players should at least earn the backing of the fans.

As for Clark, it’s unclear whether or not he will see out the season. His approval ratings are not exactly healthy despite only being in the job a short amount of time, and it’s difficult to imagine he will enjoy the same sympathy as his predecessor. The longer Blackpool go without winning games, or at least seeming like they’re trying to win games, the more the frustration will grow. Oyston may hope Clark goes about his job quietly, but any unrest from the Geordie may see him used as yet another scapegoat for a mess of Oyston’s own making.