Careful what you wish for as you walk the Wembley way

Will there really be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that is the Wembley arch for Crystal Palace this afternoon? STEVEN DOWNES suggests not

Mad world: Ian Holloway's abandoned hope of finding logic in the world of football

Mad world: Ian Holloway‘s abandoned hope of finding logic in the world of football

Today’s Championship play-off final is being bigged up in some quarters as the biggest game in world football. Only in SE25 and bits of commuter belt Hertfordshire is it. Valuations north of £120 million have been applied to justify that tag and give the match, where Crystal Palace take on Watford, as being in some way more significant than the all-German Champions League final played on the same sward less than 48 hours earlier. Which, of course, is ridiculous.

In fact, down the seasons, the play-off final has proved to be  a poisoned chalice, something which Palace manager Ian Holloway, a man with ample experience of the ups and downs of the showpiece event, acknowledged in his pre-match presser.

“You go up, you get the sack,” said Holloway, his west country burr coming through more markedly as he delivered what was clearly his considered line. Getting his excuses in first?

But Ollie has a point, and some form of perspective here is useful. Today’s game, despite the “final” tag line, isn’t some decider between the best teams in the division, after all. It is the play-off between team that finished the season third, Watford, and the team that placed only sixth, for a place in the Premier League’s illusory promised land.

Illusory? Take a train from East Croydon down to Portsmouth and visit Fratton Park to see evidence of how the pursuit of Premier League football can burn a football club, just as Icarus singed his wings when flying too close to the sun.

Tottenham's Gareth Bale: not good enough for the Champions League two seasons running, but paid £130,000 per week

Tottenham’s Gareth Bale: not good enough for the Champions League two seasons running, but paid £130,000 per week

The Premier League is, to all intents and purposes, already a three-tier division. There’s the four superclubs, global “brands” now, each with massive resources at their command, topped up each year with at least an additional £20million from playing in the European Champions’ League. They operate squads nearly twice the size of most of the other clubs in the league and are seemingly able to buy whatever players they need or desire, laying out ridiculous wages of £150,000 per week.

Only once in the past decade has a team other than Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal or Chelsea managed to win the title or finish runners-up. How difficult it is to break-in to this Manchester-London cartel, without the backing of a billionaire oil-rich sheikh or Russian oligarch, is demonstrated by the desperation, and ultimate frustration, of the last couple of seasons of Tottenham, as they have failed to qualify for one of the four Champions League spots. Because that’s where the real money is to be had.

Below them, there’s a second tier of established Premier League clubs, such as Spurs, Everton and these days even the once mighty Liverpool. These clubs might have a run in the Thursday night consolation prize that is the Europa League, or fancy their chances in the B team competition that is the League Cup, or have a day in the sun at Wembley in the FA Cup final. But while relegation is not a real worry, realistically they won’t be winning the league title anytime soon.

Yet as the past season has proven, this secondary band has got thinner of late: after a decade of being “established” in the Premier League, Wigan had one dalliance too many with the relegation zone. Villa, the leading club from the Second City, and Newcastle, a supposed regional giant, both spent most of the past six months scrambling for points, looking down more than they were looking up.

For more than half of the teams, and their fans, life in the Premier League is less a quest for glory than a struggle for survival, where mid-table mediocrity is a status to be aspired to. This is the certain fate that awaits the winner of today’s game at Wembley.

And if Liverpool, Spurs and Everton cannot manage to bridge the gap to the cartel at the top of the table, the gulf between the Premier League and the Championship is now bigger than ever. Regardless of football’s various re-brandings, the Championship is now more truly second division than ever before.

Wilf Zaha: Palace's star performer plays his final game for the club today. He's been snatched by one of the Premier League's big four clubs

Wilf Zaha: Palace’s star performer plays his final game for the club today. He’s been snatched by one of the Premier League’s big four clubs

Reading, last year’s winners of the mis-named Championship? Relegated immediately, having enjoyed just six wins all season. QPR, promoted the season before? Even worse, their fans having had just four wins to cheer in the past year.

So, Palace fans, be careful what you cheer for this afternoon. Only twice in the last 12 years have all three promoted sides managed to avoid immediate relegation the following season.

Yes, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow may have £60 million in it as prize money for the 20th and last team in the 2013-2014 Premier League season. “Parachute payments” of a further £60 million, whereby the Premier League elite plays Lady Bountiful with their feeder league, flicking crumbs from their Sky TV deal to the relegated clubs for the next four years, are supposed to cushion the blow of elimination from the top tier.

As numerous cases demonstrate, saddled with Premier League-level player contracts, relegated clubs often struggle to cope: Portsmouth, Coventry, Wolves, Leeds, Bradford City are all clubs for whom realising their football dreams has been followed by a nightmare that has lasted far longer.

And there’s no sign in those cities of much benefit to the local community from all that football money from the clubs’ dalliances with the self-styled greatest league in the world. Trickle-down economics does not work in real life, and it certainly does not work in fantasy football land. Massive chunks of the TV largesse goes from the football clubs straight into the pockets of the footballers or to their agents’ off-shore accounts. So unless you run a Ferrari dealership in Thornton Heath, it is unlikely you’ll feel much impact if Palace do win today (although, anecdotally, the cocaine dealers in some West End hotels and night clubs are always on the look out for impressionable new clients with a win bonus in their back pockets).

No rose-tinted glasses: Palace co-chairman Steve Parish

No rose-tinted glasses: Palace co-chairman Steve Parish

It’s little wonder, then, that Holloway fears for his future, even if Palace were to win today. “There’s no logic in football management,” he said.

“If you’re looking for logic then don’t look at football. Not being funny, but you get sacked if you come second, you get sacked at the whim and a prayer of your owners.

“The game has never been quite as crazy as it is now.”

Of course, for Palace, a club that was in financial administration, for a second time, only three years ago, the perils of Premier League ambition are well-known.

This has been, by any measure, a good season for the club, overcoming the set-back of losing their manager mid-term, and highlighted with the victory at Brighton in the play-off semi-final. Would wanting more now be greedy? Or even dangerous?

“You have to be realistic about where you are as a club,” Steve Parish, the club’s shrewd co-chairman, said in a radio interview yesterday. “We have a lot of work to drag our club into the 21st century.”

And maybe, even if Palace win promotion to the Premier League, Ian Holloway’s job might be safe. “We won’t be taking it out on the manager if things don’t go perfectly,” Parish said.

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3 Responses to Careful what you wish for as you walk the Wembley way

  1. Interesting thoughts! I’d think that Watford with their owners and ability to get so many “loan” players from their sister clubs would be better equipped to go up as of today.

    But as we all know, structure does not come into it in football!

    • In fact, Watford face serious problems if they go up, because they will not be allowed to have so many loanees.

      Play-off winners are usually assumed to be at least a month or six weeks behind the other promoted sides in the chase/race for suitable signings and planning for the new season. Holloway’s had the Zaha transfer cash to bank on since January, so may have lined up three or four likely signings.

      Palace’s academy is tremendously successful. But do you risk blooding teenagers at Old Trafford, or bring in a couple of experienced foreign players, at the expense of opportunites for homegrown talent?

      After all, is there anyone in the Reading or QPR squads who might strengthen a side?

  2. Well from what I know, many of the loanees have already agreed contracts to sign with the club if they do go up, plus the owners have plenty of cash besides that!

    I just feel that Palace would need a lot more work in terms of squad depth, there’s some very average players in that side in my opinion. I mean Glen Murray has been outstanding but I cannot see him being another Rickie Lambert as he is far more limited.

    I do agree with you about the Palace academy but as you said yourself, there haven’t been too many successful teams in the EPL from blooding teenagers. Personally I think only Le Fondre is worth taking a punt on from that Reading squad and I think that whoever Harry doesn’t keep from that QPR team would nearly be out of the wage range of both of these clubs anyway! We all know that QPR was an exceptional situation.

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