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What Now? Taking a Look at Life in League One
Written by jayessess on Thursday, 28th Mar 2019 17:18

I think it’s fair to say that Ipswich Town fans have been trained against optimism over the years and there’s now a proper streak of doom-mongering that runs right through our support.

Since we’ve found ourselves cut adrift there’s been no end of predictions of financial melt downs, fire sales of all our players, closing stands, spending a decade marooned in League One or even that we’ll fall straight into League Two. So, I thought I’d take a look at the reality of next season’s almost certain destination and the precedent for clubs like Ipswich going down.

Other Relegated Clubs

First the performances. The last six seasons saw the following relegated. 2018: Sunderland, Burton, Barnsley. 2017: Blackburn, Wigan, Rotherham. 2016: Charlton, MK Dons, Bolton. 2015: Millwall, Wigan, Blackpool. 2014: Doncaster, Barnsley, Yeovil. 2013: Peterborough, Wolves, Bristol City.

The 2018 victims are currently in second, fourth and 10th in League One, so, on course for automatic promotion, the play-offs and mid-table respectively.

Of the previous 15, lots of the names are immediately familiar as having returned pretty quickly. Three came back immediately as champions (Wolves, Wigan twice), twice as runners-up (Blackburn and Bolton) and another two came up via the play-offs (Rotherham and Millwall). In total seven out of the 15 spent only one season in the lower league before immediately making their way back.

Of the other eight not so lucky ones, one managed the play-offs (Peterborough), five finished mid-table (Bristol City, Doncaster, Barnsley, Charlton, MK Dons) and two were relegated a second time in succession (Yeovil, Blackpool).

Of the six that remained in League One for a second season, two were then promoted (one as champions Bristol City, another as play-off winners Barnsley), two were relegated to League Two (MK Dons and Doncaster) and two remain in League One (Charlton, Peterborough) - although both of them have made the play-offs since relegation.

Not terrible precedent then. Nine of 15 back within two seasons, two still in League One, four continued sliding. When we add in a quick look at the size of clubs involved, the precedent probably works even more in our favour.

If you list all the relegated clubs by average attendance during their relegation year, Ipswich Town would be third behind Sunderland and Wolves. The four teams to disappear into League Two were three of the five smallest plus MK Dons, whose bumper Championship attendances bely the general stature of that club.

Peterborough the third smallest were also one of the long stayers. Charlton Athletic, with their hated owner and club civil war, are the only outlier, marooned long-term in League One, despite being the third-biggest club to drop to that level. The trend has continued, with tiny Burton struggling and bigger Barnsley and Sunderland up near the top of the division.

So, Ipswich Town aren’t really the kind of club to struggle at this level, unless the fans are at war with the owner at the same time. Even then Charlton were unlucky, missing out in the play-offs in season two and in the mix this season.

Attendances and Finances

One of the other things preoccupying Town fans has been the potential for a drop-off in support for the club. We’ve seen predictions that we’ll be closing entire sections of the stadium, that there’ll be a massive crash in season ticket sales and that Portman Road will be two-thirds empty rather than half empty. Is that borne out by the experience of other clubs?

My hunch was that most people who are happy to watch their team lose a lot in the Championship aren’t going to be too dismayed by the prospect of seeing them win a bit more often in League One. Perhaps I underestimated how many people are turned off either by one bad season or by watching worse opposition because attendances for those 18 relegated clubs dipped 14 per cent in total.

There are four exceptions, Sunderland, Blackburn, Bolton and Wolves, with the first two increasing their attendances and latter two’s support holding more or less steady (dropping 0.8 per cent for Bolton and 4 per cent for Wolves). Not coincidentally all four were or are near the top of the league.

Encouragingly for Ipswich, they’re also bigger clubs who haven’t spent a lot of time in League One for whom relegation wasn’t one more yo-yo but an opportunity to rally round a club at a surprisingly low ebb. The most alarming drops tended to happen to the clubs where the crisis went deep and fans were divided – Charlton (down 29 per cent), Blackpool (down 35 per cent).

What happens to your finances? As many have observed Ipswich will instantly lose £7m of their TV deal, about 40 per cent of our total revenue.

That’s a big problem because our last financial report already had our overall wage bill at 103 per cent of present turnover and the Salary Cost Management Protocol (SCMP) caps player salaries at 60 per cent in League One, 75 per cent in a relegated side's first season. Clubs who are on course to overspend incur a transfer embargo. All very alarming, right?

Well, sort of. First off, only contracts signed after September of your relegation year count towards the cap. So that rules out the big contracts signed by Emyr Huws and Bartosz Bialkowski, as well as all the players we signed during the summer.

Of the senior players only Luke Chambers, Teddy Bishop and Freddie Sears have signed new contracts since then and all when relegation looked likely and none had other suitors.

Everyone else on the books is either a kid - and the wages of those aged under-21 doesn't count towards SCMP - or awaiting offers. So in terms of restricting the wage bill, it seems we should already be in pretty good shape. The players' contracts also include hefty wage cuts in the event of relegation.

One further positive is that although clubs can’t incur debt to pay wages the owner can chip in with direct donations. That is, if he wants to chuck in £5m to cover the shortfall, he can, just not on the terms that he currently does (via loans).

Finally, even if we were projected to exceed the wage cap (the league examines your proposed accounts at the beginning of the season), the consequences would, at worst, be a transfer embargo not a points deduction.

Both Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic took heavy losses during their League One stint (£16.8m and £7.7m respectively), with the former paying wages equivalent to 187 per cent of their turnover. Neither were punished and the league seems to have accepted that their projected wage bills fell within the rules.

We are, in a way, in a good situation, in that we have a lot of players ready to play who have only just signed their first contract and a few expensive contracts about to expire (Tom Adeyemi, Jonas Knudsen). So, unless the deals doled out this year have been wildly extravagant (unlikely) or Marcus Evans reduces his current level of investment, we shouldn’t be terribly badly off and hopefully won’t be endangering that wage cap.

Where Does That Leave Us?

Relatively speaking, we are in good shape to tackle League One, certainly off the pitch. The young players give us squad depth relatively cheaply and most of the fat contracts are either off the books or won’t count next season anyway.

If Sunderland win promotion to the Championship, we would likely have the highest revenues in the division even without Evans’s regular £5-7m top-up. We would in any case have far more resources even than the majority of teams who have made an instant return and considerably more than the four for whom relegation from the Championship wasn’t their lowest point.

The main danger seems to be the prospect of getting sucked into a Charlton scenario with the club at war with itself. Evans’s management of the club hasn’t endeared him to anyone, either via investment levels, general competence or public relations.

Whilst Paul Lambert has made huge strides on the communications side of things, the quality of football has only improved very gradually.

With no other investor on the horizon if Evans decides he needs to stem losses with a few cheap player sales or things get off to a sticky start on the pitch, an off-field revolt could well turn things ugly.

It’s vital the club and the fans stick together, attendances hold up and that Evans continue to at least plug existing financial gaps. All those being the case we have nothing to fear from League One.

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Len_Brennan added 08:38 - Mar 29
Great blog, full of factual information, good research & very reasonable assumptions.

jayessess added 12:58 - Mar 29
thanks Len!

distractored added 09:02 - Mar 30
I liked your blog, thank you.

One thing tho', when you say

> if he wants to chuck in £5m to cover the shortfall,

will Mr. Evans keep doing so when we're in the Third Division?

SWGF added 11:05 - Mar 31
Very interesting. Thanks

PortmanTerrorist added 15:25 - Apr 1
Most of what I have been saying for a while, but very well explained and supported.

With a sensible level of support fro Evans, PL still in place, 2/3 key additions to replace those out of contract and keeping Alan Judge and maybe Collins too we will indeed be well set.

Just need Sunderland and Portsmouth to get promoted this season as I fancy both will be hard to get past next season esp if they keep their managers.

jayessess added 11:45 - Apr 3
Thus far I've not seen any indication that he's intending to reduce his level of investment. He's on record saying that he can sustain the current arrangement over the long term and that he's no intention of selling up. The offers of new contracts to Chambers and Judge is also a good sign, I'd say.
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