Do parachute payments distort competition in the Championship? Should the governing bodies ensure they are being used for their original purpose? Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder thinks so and told The Star’s James Shield why he will always be financially responsible.
He side-stepped most of the questions with the dexterity you would expect of someone who is regularly interviewed.
But when the subject of money reared its head, and specifically the use of parachute payments, Chris Wilder confronted the issue head on.
“They are transfer funds,” he argued. “Nothing more, nothing less for the vast majority. They’re not being used as a safety net for those who have slipped down the divisions. I knows there will always be have’s and have not’s. I know we’re not In America where sport is on a level playing field, But why can’t there be a provision stipulating they should be spent on what they were designed for? Why can’t there be a provision people have to look after themselves?”
Finance, or football finance to be specific, interests, intrigues and appals Sheffield United’s manager in equal measure. Not because he spent much of last season dropping diplomatic hints about the size of his transfer budget. Or, after entering the penultimate match of the campaign chasing play-off qualification, because his team proved pounds do not always translate into Championship points. The opportunity to inflict punishment on those with far deeper pockets appeals to the devilish side of Wilder’s nature. But the fear his profession is now more about organising cash flows than formulating tactics is a cause for concern. Particularly when, thanks to some dangerously creative accountancy, the competition is becoming increasingly skewed.
Wilder was in hospitable mood when, five days ago, he hosted a mid-summer media conference for regional journalists. Casually dressed and sipping a milky mug of tea, the 50-year-old regaled his audience with tales of supposedly top secret scouting missions and jaunts to the cricket while, behind him, assistants Alan Knill and Matt Prestridge busied themselves preparing for this morning’s return to training. His demeanour changed, however, after being asked to expand upon a throwaway comment about the need for good housekeeping. It is an issue which is close to Wilder’s heart, having worked for both Halifax Town and Northampton before arriving at Bramall Lane. Indeed, having witnessed the devastation caused by reckless, irresponsible or even illegal spending, his strength of feeling is such it prompted him to break the unwritten rule of never commenting on rival clubs.
“To see the EFL going to meet Aston Villa, who are an historic club, for a special meeting, hopefully there’s going to be consistency there and the EFL will be going to see other clubs too,” he said. “They won’t be the only ones having difficulties at the moment, trust me. I could name a few others who I know have made everyone else aware they’ll listen to offers for all of their players, but I won’t. It’s going on, it’s happening, though.”
“Parachute payments are not used to bail clubs out,” Wilder added. “If nobody is regulating it, you will see Championship clubs spending £25m on a centre-forward. You’ll see that this year. Why should clubs, who have come out of the division because they’re not good enough, be handed an advantage to get back?
“You’ve got clubs in League One paying Premier League wages. They’ve been used to attract players and it’s ridiculous really. How they are used should be policed better. That’s why you’ve got people who are taking risks and not being sensible.”
Wilder has a vested interest in curbing extravagance because of its inflationary effect in the transfer market. But there is a philosophical dimension to his argument too. Having positioned United as a people’s club, it would be duplicitous, immoral even, to show now concern for those who work behind the scenes.
“It’s not the way I want to go about it,” he insisted. “If we get up next year and the owners came to me and said ‘This is it’ I’d genuinely ask: ‘For how long.’ Because it would affect people like Claire and Micky Rooker.
“I’m not saying I wouldn’t take it but I wouldn’t if there was a chance of a car crash happening after a year because it affects people behind the scenes.
“Also, you can’t have a situation where you have players in a changing room on £40,000 a week and then you’re looking at bringing someone in from Hull, let’s say, on £5,000 a week who is sitting next to them. That, in my opinion, doesn’t work.”
United have many fine qualities. But a sense of timing is not one of them. Relegated from the first and second tiers when football’s wealth was booming, they clawed themselves out of the third at precisely the moment Championship finances went haywire. While last season’s title winners Wolves were lavishing over £16m on a 20-year-old midfielder, Wilder’s biggest outlay since taking charge in 2016 is thought to have been around £750,000. The sight of Nottingham Forest smashing their own transfer record earlier this month confirms his suspicions that, despite United’s decision to release greater funding, his powers-of-persuasion and contacts book will remain powerful weapons as they look to improve upon last year’s 10th placed finish.
“When Forest do what they have done, it completely changes the market,” he reminded. “There’s the boy who has gone from Norwich to Leicester (James Maddison). Villa will say (Jack) Grealish is better than Maddison. There’s the boy at Peterborough (Marcus Maddison), and I’m not criticising them because they want the best price, who will see his price bumped up.”
Inevitably, Wilder’s comments will prompt accusations of jealously.
“Look at Wolves: If everything is in order and is for the next four years or so, no problems,” he stressed, refuting anything of the sort. “Some owners want to put more in. Some owners can put more in. That’s how Manchester City and Chelsea emerged. There was no situation regarding the Wolves situation unless they were breaking rules.”
United, partly because of circumstance and partly through design, are taking a more economical approach based around identifying up-and-coming but under-valued talent. This policy puts them at a short-term disadvantage but, according to Wilder, offers a better chance of sustained success.
“I don’t want to get involved in a situation where it’s all or nothing,” he said. “Boom and bust? You can’t build anything that way unless the gamble comes off. And I don’t like to gamble because we all know what can happen if it doesn’t come off. I’d rather not leave things like that to chance.”
Originally designed to soften the blow of relegation and keep clubs on a financially even keel, parachute payments are increasingly being used to subsidise extravagant forays into the transfer market.
So much so, in fact, that researchers from Sheffield Hallam University have accused them of distorting competition in the Championship and called for the system to be abolished or overhauled.
‘Parachute Payments in English Football: Softening the Landing or Distorting the Balance’, a paper co-authored by Rob Wilson, Daniel Plumley and Grish Ramchandani, reported eight teams in the division received a PL handout during the 2016./17 campaign, before calculating those in receipt are twice as likely to win promotion than those without. Their findings have prompted calls for the introduction of a points handicap or, as Wilson argues, greater financial responsibility because of the broadcasting revenues now available to those competing at top-flight level.
Hull City, Middlesbrough and Sunderland, who went on suffer a second successive relegation, all received £40m in parachute payments at the beginning of the previous campaign.
HOW PARACHUTE PAYMENTS WORK:
Clubs relegated from the Premier League receive around £40m during their first season in the English Football League and, unless they fail to return within three years, a further £35m before a final instalment of £15m. This equates to an estimated 55, 40 and 20 per cent of broadcast revenues. Until 2016, parachute payments were rolled out over a four year period. Teams who spent only one term in the top-flight are now entitled to only two payments rather than three. The money is made available even if a team slips into the third tier meaning Sunderland, who have experienced back to back relegations, are scheduled to benefit despite competing in League One next term.