Why yo-yo clubs like Norwich and Fulham are stuck in 'football purgatory'
Promotion to the Premier League should be an exciting time for any team, but for supporters of a small group of clubs the experience is wearing thin.
As the financial gap widens ever further between the top flight’s Big Six and the rest, it has stretched the English football pyramid and is creating a clutch of clubs not quite good enough for the Premier League but with enough wealth from even a short stay in the top division to make them favourites to return. “It’s sort of this purgatory,” says football finance expert Kieran Maguire of the so-called yo-yo clubs.
Norwich and Watford came up last season and are set to go straight back down to the Championship. Norwich have been promoted and relegated four times in 11 seasons. Watford twice up and twice down in eight.
Meanwhile Fulham, relegated last season, and Bournemouth, relegated the season before, are already confirmed as the two automatically promoted from the second tier.
It is difficult to look beyond money as the root cause of all this. “As far as the Premier League is concerned they would say we’re a successful product, we’re the world’s most popular team sport, and the focus is on the top six and not the bottom, and ultimately who cares about the bottom six?” Maguire says. “But what we’ve got is a Premier League and a Premier League 1.5.”
Maguire points to the finances involved. In the 2019-20 season in which Fulham were promoted via the playoffs they lost £73m in general trading from the previous season in the Premier League – a loss of £1.5m per week operationally, and that was with parachute payments.
Parachute payments – the tens of millions given by the Premier League to relegated clubs – were once described by EFL chairman Rick Parry as “an evil that must be eradicated” but are not considered as big a problem as the financial chasm between the Big Six and the clubs in the bottom eight.
The top six clubs earn around £350m-£400m more than the clubs in the bottom eight. And while they have only received an increase from 45 per cent to 58 per cent of broadcast income in recent years, the money they generate from commercial deals and ticket sales is where the real discrepancy lies. “They’re now getting 78 per cent of commercial income and 73 per cent of match-day income,” Maguire says. “That’s six clubs. Three quarters of ticket sales go to them.”
And that is before Uefa earnings. In 2019, the last time before Covid skewed finances, €400m was split between the four clubs in the Champions League – Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool. With Liverpool and Spurs contesting the final and Arsenal and Chelsea reaching the Europa League, it meant the Big Six teams split €485m in TV money alone.
And these clubs just keep on taking. They have continuously used the threat of a Super League to gouge out more money.
What chance do the yo-yo clubs stand? One chief executive of a club previously relegated from the Premier League pointed out that if you are struggling by January and want to make signings, a relegation clause to reflect the drop in income in the Championship would be around 80 per cent, yet no player would ever agree to it, rendering sensible financial decisions pointless.
Fulham and Bournemouth are lucky enough to have billionaire owners willing to invest.
Bournemouth’s Maxim Demin owns a petrochemicals company and they were fined for breaching Financial Fair Play rules to make it to the Premier League in the first place. Fulham’s owner is sports tycoon Shahid Khan whose losses at the club total £494m.
Yet one Fulham source believes that despite the club scoring a staggering 100-plus goals on the way to winning the Championship, they require seven new players to survive. Not only do they have a slightly aging squad, there are doubts if three players key to this season will cut it in the top flight: captain Tom Cairney, 31, and Tim Ream, 34, and even prolific Championship goal-scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic, 27, who has failed to prove himself in the Premier League previously.
Norwich don’t have the luxury of a billionaire benefactor, and frequently sell star players to fund a squad capable of doing well in the Championship. In summer 2018 they sold James Maddison to Leicester for £22.5m and won the Championship the following year. They sold Ben Godfrey to Everton for £25m in summer 2020 before winning the Championship again. They sold Emiliano Buendia to Aston Villa last summer for £33m and were relegated this season.
When Daniel Farke was appointed manager in May 2017 they finished 14th in the Championship then won it a year later. “From the first day after promotion our chances to survive were perhaps five per cent so in 19 out of 20 cases you will go down,” Farke said after they were relegated.
“If you have luck and no injuries then you have a chance. When we are 100 per cent we are competitive but when it’s 96 or 97 per cent then it sometimes looks like men against boys.”
Watford have become a sort of empty vessel through which professional footballers and managers pass. Taking a step back, supporters accept this is probably the club’s most successful period since the 1980s, but the Pozzo family’s multi-club ownership model and managerial conveyor belt has caused disconnect.
“There’s a growing sense that we lost our way a bit as a club,” says Michael Moruzzi, 43, who has supported the club for more than 30 years. “It’s taken a lot of fun out of it. This season in particular everyone is fed up. There’s a real sense we don’t have a strong connection as fans with this team.
“[The owners] have sucked the life out of the squad, the spirit, unity, general sense of backbone all destroyed. We’re in a situation now where you feel they’re 11 blokes chucked out and let’s see what happens and inevitably they end up losing and everyone goes home miserable.”
After three games supporters knew Watford were out of their depth and would struggle. “I hope it’s not the case smaller clubs cannot exist in the Premier League any more but it is getting harder and harder,” Moruzzi adds. “When you’re in a league where you’re competitive and can play football that’s more fun, no question.
“Not to say I don’t want Watford to get promoted, that’s a dangerous attitude to have, but it’s more fun when they’re playing at a standard they can thrive at and win games. In the Premier League you’re there to survive. And after a while that becomes not that exciting as a prospect.”