Bristol Rovers were in dire straits in late January 2002. It was their first-ever season in the 4th tier of English football and they were doing badly, occupying the 87th place of the 92 league clubs.
A trip to a Premier League club in the FA Cup sounded like a recipe for disaster. But Rovers’ 3-1 victory at Pride Park was to prove the showcase for a young striker whose hat-trick destroyed Derby that day. Nathan Ellington was only 20 at the time, but was heading towards twenty goals for the season in a struggling side.
At the time Wigan Athletic were hovering around mid-table in League 2, the 3rd tier. Latics had finished in the top six the previous three seasons and manager Paul Jewell had spent freely in a bid to get promotion.
In summer he had paid Dundee United £500,000 for Jason de Vos, £750,000 to Wolves for Tony Dinning and £300,000 to Watford for Peter Kennedy. He had followed that up in December with the signings of John Filan from Blackburn for £600,000 and Gary Teale from Ayr United for £275,000.
However, Latics were just not scoring enough goals. They had scored a paltry 53 in 46 league matches the previous season and desperately needed someone who could put the ball in the back of the net.
Jewell’s signing of Ellington for £1.2 million a couple of months later raised eyebrows in the English football world at the time. It was an enormous fee for a club in the third tier, with an average attendance of around 6,000, to pay to one in the tier below them. However, in the following season Ellington’s 22 goals propelled Latics to winning the division. Ellington was to go on to form that wonderful partnership with ex-Bristol Rovers teammate, Jason Roberts, that was to help Latics reach the Premier League.
It had been Wigan’s sixth season in the third tier when Ellington was signed in 2002, but just over thirteen years on Wigan Athletic are contemplating life back there. But it is a different club now than it was then and the Financial Fair Play protocol has come into play. Can Latics once again get out of the third tier, albeit within a differing economic climate?
There have been many theories put forward as to why Latics were relegated this season. But, no matter what was going off the pitch, scoring only 39 goals in 46 league games was the main contributory factor. Dave Whelan had splashed some £8 million during the summer transfer window in signing strikers Andy Delort and Oriol Riera together with Adam Forshaw and Emyr Huws, who were expected to provide some creativity in midfield.
Sadly the gamble did not come off and none of the four was to play in the second half of the season. Forshaw was sold, Huws injured and the two strikers sent back to their home countries on loan. Given the failed investment made by Whelan, will his grandson and new chairman, David Sharpe, be brave enough to follow a similar path this summer by making major investments in players?
Whelan had splashed money around in both the 2001-02 and the 2014-15 seasons in bids for promotion. However, in 2001-02 there was little hope of a return on his investment. Over two decades he was to pour around £100 million into the club with little hope of getting any of it back. Not only was getting promotion to the Premier League at a considerable financial cost to him, but he had to keep pouring money into for the club to stay there.
In 2007 following the departure of Jewell and an unfortunate spell under Chris Hutchings, Whelan brought back Steve Bruce to steady the ship. Bruce did exactly that. Hutchings had presided over six successive defeats, taking Latics into the bottom three. Bruce arrived in November and managed to steer Latics into 14th place, well clear of relegation. In the 2009-09 season that followed they finished 11th. But Bruce’s success had come at a financial cost. The result was Wilson Palacios and Emile Heskey leaving in January and Antonio Valencia in July. Nevertheless Latics had made losses of £11.2 million and £5.8 million over the two seasons with Bruce in charge.
Roberto Martinez was appointed in the summer of 2009 with the brief of slashing the wage bill, but maintaining Wigan’s Premier League status. Even before the season had begun Lee Cattermole had been sold for £3.5 million. Martinez was to guide Latics into 16th place, with the operating loss for the season cut to £4 million.
The 2010-11 saw Latics finish in 16th place once again, with a loss of £7.2 million. But in the 2011-12 season they were to turn things around financially, finishing 15th with a profit of £4.3 million. A profit of £822,000 was made the following season when they won the FA Cup but were relegated from the Premier League.
Relegation to the Championship saw the club cut its cloth according to its changed circumstances. Wages for 2013-14 were cut from around £50 million the previous season to £30 million. A profit of £2.6 million was announced.
However, profit and loss statements do not tell the full story of a club’s finances. Accountancy uses the concept of amortisation, which tends to distort the picture. In simple terms transfer fees are spread over the term of a player’s contract.
Let’s say that Wigan paid a £2.8 million transfer fee to sign Andy Delort in 2014, who was given a four year contract. The amortised value is therefore £700,000 per year. On the accounts for this year the transfer fee would therefore appear as an amortisation of £700,000. Delort’s amortised book value after one year would therefore be £2.8 million, less £700,000, equalling £2.1 million.
Now let’s say that Delort is sold for £2.0 million after being at the club for two years. After two years his amortised book value is £1.4 million, so the accounts for 2016-17 would show a profit on the sale of £2.0 million less £1.4 million, that is £0.6 million. Let’s also say Delort’s annual salary was £1million. For that year’s accounts Latics would actually show a profit improvement of £2.3million due to lower wage costs of £1 million, lower amortization costs of £0.7 million and the £0.6 million profit on the transfer.
The use of amortization in accounting for football club profits and losses is an art unto itself. However, the declared profits shown by Wigan Athletic in the last three years of reporting suggest that the club has been heading in the right direction. In simple terms its long-term sustainability depends on nothing less than making sure that incomings outweigh outgoings.
The higher than usual level of transfer activity and changes in wage costs over the course of the season just finished will certainly keep the club’s accountants busy. However, in layman’s terms the transfer fees received through the sales of such as James McArthur and Callum McManaman outweighed those spent. Moreover the January sales and departures enabled the club to drastically its wage bill.
Wigan Athletic today announced its new season ticket prices, David Sharpe stating that:
“Gary Caldwell and his staff will work tirelessly to get things right on the pitch, and I’m sure that our loyal supporters will support the players as they always do. We want to reward our supporters after a difficult season and by reducing prices by 5% we are demonstrating how much we appreciate the support we have received. Our fans will play a massive part in the new era of the club. Our season cards continue to be the most cost effective way of watching Wigan Athletic and remain extremely competitive compared to other clubs. We are committed to making the cost of watching football affordable to all.”
The club’s admission prices were among the lowest in the Championship division, where average attendance dropped to 12,882 from 15,176 the previous season. A further drop in attendance would appear inevitable, even if the club has a successful season. The prospective fall in attendances, together with reduced admission prices, means a significant further drop in gate receipts.
The average attendance in League 1 this year was 7,061. It was the larger city clubs – Sheffield United, Bradford City and Bristol City – who averaged over 10,000. Over their previous six seasons in the third tier Wigan Athletic averaged 5,841, with the highest yearly average of 7,287 in the promotion season 2002-03 and the lowest yearly average of 3,967 in the first season 1997-98.
With gate receipts becoming a more critical factor, Sharpe will be hoping he can maintain average attendances at least around the 8,000 mark. After their successes in the past decade in particular, Latics now have a greater fan base than before. However, he will be aware that he has to keep admission prices relatively low to compete with the local rugby club for support and not alienate fans who have loyally stuck by the club in the most horrendous of seasons that just passed.
For the next couple of years gate receipts will not be the main source of revenue, given parachute payments of £8 million per season. On the face of it Latics will have a significant financial advantage over the other 23 clubs in the division, none of whom have parachute payments. However, FFP protocols differ greatly between League 1 and the Championship. The Salary Cost Management Protocol (SCMP) system, operated in League 1, allows owners to inject funds in ways that would not be possible in the Championship.
League 1 winners Bristol City have been losing money steadily over recent years. In 2013-14 they lost £3.9m after being relegated to League 1. They had lost £12.9 million in the Championship the previous season, with big losses in the years prior to that. In January 2014 their major shareholder, Steve Lansdown, turned £35 million of debt into equity to keep the club afloat. Despite their lack of profitability they have been able to put funds into the redevelopment of their Ashton Gate ground, due to be completed in 2016-17.
In contrast Yeovil have not had that kind of financial support from their owners. Sadly they have suffered successive relegations and will play in League 2 next season. In March chairman John Fry claimed that their budget of £1.4 million was the 14th highest in League 1, the highest they had ever had in that division. They had started the season with a loss of £5 million hanging over them from the previous year in the Championship division. Fry has repeatedly stated his view that the SCMP penalises smaller clubs like his own, whose gate receipts cannot compete with those of bigger clubs.
David Sharpe continues to reiterate his desire to get immediate promotion back into the Championship. Parachute payments notwithstanding, is he willing to give Gary Caldwell the kind of financial backing that his grandfather gave Paul Jewell more than a decade ago?
If he is then maybe we will see a young striker coming into the club who can make a difference in the way that Nathan Ellington did from 2002-2005.
If we could keep Waggy that would be of huge benefit, as he is a proven goalscorer even in the Championship. He should be able to score goals in League One easily. We also have Billy Mckay. I don’t know if he’s good enough or not, but he is also a proven goal-scorer in Scottish football. Do we really need another striker? It might be handy since it is always good to have a surplus of goal-scorers, but since we also have Robles and Cosgrove I think Mckay and Waggy might be enough for the time being, presuming both are staying. A central defender or two seems like a priority at the moment.
I don’t think there’s any prospect of investment as we saw in the past, JJ. Whelan used to lend the money to the club which now would break the SMCP. There’s little or no likelihood of any donations or increasing the value of the family’s shareholding either. They seem to be committed to keeping the club solvent and if last summer shows anything it’s how football “investment” can go badly wrong. In any case, we all know that there is no real investment in football as there is no financial return. At best, a club becomes more successful which only leads to more calls for “investment”. We tried that in the first four years in the Premier League and it didn’t work.