A game of survival

It's a harsh life in the lower rungs of the Premier League, in contrast to the glitzy ways at the top

A game of survival

It feels as if much of England is drowning. And half the clubs in its Premier League are afraid of going under. Neither is an exaggeration. Historic rainfalls keep coming, flooding farmlands and towns in the south. And just seven points separate 11 teams in the bottom half of the league.

The nation is fighting nature. The clubs are gripped by fear of dropping out of the world’s richest soccer league.

Soccer in the Premier League is awash with money. Even the lowest of its 20 teams will be paid 63 million pounds, or $103 million, this season as its share from television revenues. But three clubs will be relegated when the season ends in May. Once they drop, they will leak resources. The chief executive of one of those clubs broadcast on local radio last month that he would “prefer death rather than relegation.” 

A bit over the top? Of course, but there is history to such talk.

Nearly 33 years have passed since the death of Bill Shankly, the marvellous, mischievous team manager of Liverpool, who once said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

Shanks could bandy words similar to the way that the great Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi did. And, from my own early days as a young television reporter, I can confirm that Liverpool’s sage said many a word with a poker face while chuckling inside.

One doubts that Norwich City’s chief executive, David McNally, is quite so expert in front of the microphone. McNally is a numbers man. He has to make the books balance, and he fears, as do half the chief executives in the Premier League, what would happen if his club sank.“We will not contemplate relegation,” McNally said in an interview broadcast on BBC Radio Norfolk. “In a sporting sense, it is worse than death.” There was no chuckle to be heard. The executive was asked if the team manager, Chris Hughton, had the backing of the Norwich board. “We are in the entertainment business, and results are the only thing that matters,” he responded. “Whether Chris has a long term at Norwich City, or whether I do, it is about how well we do in our jobs — and the only real measure is results.”

Beyond the rhetoric is the math. To stay in the Premier League, Norwich does what every other team does. It buys the best players it can from the world market. It pays wages that would not be sustainable outside the Premier League, but there is a black hole of inequality below that.

Clubs that go down are often saddled with players who either abandon ship and play for somebody else or, if they are not wanted by another Premier League side, hold the relegated club to their seven-figure annual contracts. That’s entertainment? Actually, it’s business with a callous reality. The repercussion usually comes before the fall, at least as far as the coaches and managers are concerned.

Norwich is open and honest about its relationship with Hughton. His job depends on his keeping the team out of the bottom three, preferably by deploying attractive tactics.But if Hughton, once a classy Tottenham Hotspur fullback, is dangled by a thread, he at least still has a job.Seven other coaches within the 20-team Premier League have already departed. Five of them, Paolo di Canio (Sunderland), Ian Holloway (Crystal Palace), Martin Jol (Fulham), Steve Clarke (West Bromwich Albion) and Malky Mackay (Cardiff), were rooted in or right near the relegation zone when relieved of their duties.

Two others have also fallen. Spurs dismissed André Villas-Boas because, after spending a fortune to get into the Champions League places, he ran out of time to prove he could knit all the talents into a convincing unit. And a week ago, Swansea City terminated the contract of Michael Laudrup. Swansea is a small club of big ambition on the Welsh coast, where the storms battering England first hit. The Swans know how turbulence really feels, because the club has twice risen through four divisions of the English leagues and has survived flirting with bankruptcy.

Huw Jenkins, the chairman who fired Laudrup, is a lifelong fan who, as a local businessman, helped form the rescue plan that spared Swansea from liquidation. Jenkins has had a Midas touch in choosing managers to build attractive teams on tight budgets.

Roberto Martinez (now at Everton) and Brendan Rodgers (now at Liverpool) fulfilled that role before moving on. Jenkins and his board then signed up Laudrup, the great Dane who graced the fields and then managed clubs in Denmark, Spain and Russia.

Laudrup’s sportsmanship and serenity survived the transition from player to coach. He recruited decent, cut-rate players from Spain to help Swansea win the League Cup last year, the club’s first major trophy in 102 years of existence.

There was talk of Real Madrid or Chelsea luring him. But last year, Swansea banished Laudrup’s agent. Then came injuries to last season’s top striker, Michu, and others as the team struggled with Europa League games on top of the Premier League.

To some, Laudrup’s laissez-faire attitude became a reason to dismiss him. The team lies in the middle of the standings, yet only a couple of defeats from danger. Laudrup was replaced by the club captain Garry Monk. “Without going into detail,” Jenkins wrote in last weekend’s match programme, “it was clear to all our directors that the strong principles we have had at Swansea City over the last 10 years were slowly being eroded.” The Swans are gambling on staying afloat. The sacking season is just over halfway done.

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