• Adam Stubbings

Pursed Strings: Salary Cap Shift for EFL

It’s official: clubs in League’s One and Two have voted in favour of a new Salary Cap to take effect immediately, a move that brings widespread repercussions across the English professional game.

The vote, finally undertaken on Friday after a protracted period of discussion over the summer, has come amidst the global pandemic which is still having such a profound effect on football, and has been brought in to try and ensure a better platform for clubs to be sustainable under these uncertain financial times. Doncaster Rovers and their League One brethren will be beholden to a £2.5 million annual cap whilst League Two has set theirs at £1.5 million.

It is also a move to try and stop clubs going the same way as Bury FC did little under a year ago, with the idea being that clubs having a strict upper limit to work to will mean they avoid ploughing money into an ever deepening hole in the pursuit of success. Naturally, reaction to the Salary Cap has been mixed with the bigger clubs in League One particularly complaining that their ability to make greater revenue than most of their contemporaries has been negated as a result.

Is this then a step in the right direction for the EFL? Will Doncaster Rovers be able to thrive within the limitations of the cap?

A Welcome Change for Rovers?

As much as some will probably laud the EFL and its clubs for taking this step towards collective financial prudence, it is a move very much necessitated by the impact of Covid-19, which has strangled football and clubs like Rovers’ ability to make any money, since the majority of League One and Two teams rely heavily on match day revenue to survive. That means less to go around for expensive new signings or bumper new deals for existing players, so a Salary Cap across the leagues helps to even out some of the discrepancies and ease the burden.

The cap includes all player wages, plus taxes, performance bonuses, agents fees and superfluous clauses such as image rights, with a 5% overrun included as far as penalising clubs exceeding the cap is concerned. Looking at it in a rudimentary manner, that would work out at roughly £125,000 annual spend on each player in a squad of 20, or a smidge over £2.4k a week on average. That number may seem a little low, but once you balance high earners against those signed below the average, it should be quite doable for the majority of League One sides.

At time of writing, Rovers have a senior squad comprising 17 players, which includes loaned out goalkeeper Ian Lawlor (whose salary will count against Rovers’ cap number) and six young players who will class as under-21 players and thus not be counted against the cap. If Darren Moore sticks to the policy of heavily utilising the loan market in 2020/21, then it appears the Rovers squad will easily be able to manage the measures implemented today with no fuss.

This is surely a feather in the cap then for the oft-discussed “Club Doncaster Model” which has seen the Rovers hierarchy working towards sustainability for a number of years now, and incorporates the various sporting arms of Club Doncaster including the Rugby League team, Foundation and recently-acquired Doncaster Rovers Belles women’s team. Although we have no confirmation as yet, it seems reasonable to suggest that ours was one of the teams to vote in favour of the Salary Cap and with good reason to do so.

A Slice of Humble Pie?

Opposition to the plans have been vocal since it was first mooted in the months leading up to this week’s vote. It is fairly easy to guess who comprises the seven dissenting votes in League One against the cap, with a clutch of teams traditionally positioned at a higher level currently mired in the third tier and operating with very high wage budgets. The likes of Sunderland, Portsmouth and Ipswich have labelled the cap an unfair restriction on their lofty financial ability relative to the rest of the division, arguing that they make more money and should be able to spend it.

Have these underachieving sides made a rod for their own backs though? Sunderland have had their wayward overspending highlighted clearly in a Netflix documentary, whilst Portsmouth’s financial troubles over the past decade are well documented. Both clubs are shining examples of why limitations are a good idea to keep clubs in check, and the claim of Sunderland CEO Jim Rodwell that the Salary Cap “unfairly levels the playing field” suggests those clubs are missing the point entirely.

In truth, the entitlement of the “fallen giants” and knock-on effect on the lower leagues has been brewing for the best part of 20 years, going right back to Manchester City’s fall in the late-90s. Most of those used to life in League One and Two will no doubt welcome the cap and laud an opportunity to even the playing field and ensure true competition remains. The simple solution for those so-called bigger clubs is to ensure they maximise their spending power to earn promotion back into the Championship this season.

Bury have gone by the wayside and plenty of other EFL clubs have spent into a hole trying to catch up and compete with bigger clubs who have slid into the bottom two tiers through overspending and have then spent more money to try and dig their way out. This practice has to stop and the time has long passed for owners and clubs to bring things under control themselves, although yesterday’s announcement doesn’t quite draw a line under the whole process.

A Test of Effectiveness

The PFA – which represents the views of players – has been vocally opposed to the plans since they were announced and re-asserted that stance in the wake of the vote passing yesterday, threatening legal action. The EFL believe the plans are legally sound and binding so it will be interesting to see how far the players’ union takes the matter, but if players ultimately are no worse off (and there is little reason to believe they will be as individuals) then it seems apparent the Salary Cap is here to stay.

Another obstacle to the measures being successful is the lack of one in the top two divisions. Any limitations on clubs in Leagues One and Two without a similar cap for Championship clubs will only serve to stretch the ever-widening gulf in resources between the divisions and the second tier will become a true “Premier League 2” in all but name. The EFL oversees all thee leagues of course and a cap for the Championship is apparently in the offing, but if it isn’t agreed over the course of the 2020/21 season it creates a big problem.

Many feel the problems with financial gluttony in English football all stem from the top down, and it seems grossly unlikely that the Premier League will step down from its ivory tower to implement a similar Salary Cap, although they can’t fully be blamed for that since they would be putting their clubs at a disadvantage in competition with other elite European leagues. The problem is that money continues to flow obscenely at the top table and they may just pull further away into the distance from EFL clubs as a result.

Whatever the long-term effects on the domestic pyramid, as long as smaller teams can be helped to stay afloat through the impact of Covid-19 then the Salary Cap will be a benefit to the EFL. Doncaster Rovers should figure to be fine with the measures and, if they can brush off the loss of revenue over the past few months and come out the other side strongly then this radical change in the way teams operate may allow the club to step to the front of the pack again in the seasons to come.

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