Identity Crisis

I accept that some of the following is contradictory. I make no apologies for this. If anything I sense it helps demonstrate self confusion & ennui.

identity crisis

 noun         PSYCHIATRY

a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.

The Upton Park Academy, Liverpool’s Red Machine, The Crazy Gang, even Dirty Leeds. Some, like those mentioned here might be more publicly obvious than others, but every football club has their own identity. Even Milton Keynes, the most dislikable of all football clubs, have their shamelessly franchised identity – albeit one I’d rather chop both my legs off than join their contemptible revelry in.

And then there is us. The ultimate 3rd level football club. A rather homely bungalow located in an area of high rise neighbours, always looking for that next step forward but never quite bridging the gap. Over the years I think we’ve also enjoyed a reputation for developing our own players, playing the game in the right manner and being financially responsible. We also used to be just about the last lower league team you’d want to draw in any cup competition, liking nothing more than the opportunity to blood the nose of any team who’d get ahead of themselves. Cinderella in steel toe caps and a butcher’s apron, if you like.

But it’s the 3rd level stats that probably define us more than anything. Most games in the 3rd tier, more points at this level than any other, most draws, most defeats and most home wins. The recent victory against Oxford pulled us level with Bournemouth for most wins, so that will also become ours soon. A Football Club is, more often than not, defined by its history & aspirations and ours is pretty obvious.

Which has recently left me wondering why a club that is such an integral part of English football’s 3rd tier suddenly finds it quite so financially challenging to compete at this level.

Indeed, whilst spending power is important, it never used to be the primary solution to being competitive in this division – as both the Graydon miracle and (conversely) Sheffield United’s five years of comedic failure prior to getting it right last year proved. Money always provided greater opportunity but long term success was built from the foundations.

Similarly, Dean Smith’s now famous blueprint looked destined to deliver what our budgetary impotence couldn’t. Passing football built around a conveyor of young, hungry and (most importantly) improvable footballers. It wasn’t perfect; the exit door was constantly ajar to the more productive and most improved. Similarly, those long runs without winning tested (and broke) the patience levels of some, but there was a visible methodology, a clear path of travel. Something told me we were into something good.

Good coaching that consistently improved our own players, a club wide set of playing principles, a recruitment philosophy based around signing players who could (and would) be improved, providing youth with a platform to be the best they could be. The five year plan that the entire club bought into came within a whisker of defying financial gravity and almost got us up. That identity as an ambitious passing side that developed youth and improved players who’d got lost elsewhere has arguably never shone brighter.

A smidgen over 24 months later and the team Smith left behind is disturbingly unrecognisable, with the “possible” section of Smith’s brutally cutting leaving statement looking a million miles away. Forget the Premier League being a possibility, right now we’re as far from the Championship and Smith’s blueprint as I think I can ever remember. Our sporting challenge marooned amid a fog of six month player loans, bridal fairs, and landfill motown gigs.

Which brings us beautifully to WFC The Venue. Birmingham-Walsall.

I honestly can’t think of anything that screams identity crisis more than this. Because when a football club, particularly one with its roots quite so directly fixed on its doorstep, doesn’t have the courage or belief in the name of the town it represents, its ultimate brand, I begin to wonder what it does have faith in.

To be absolutely fair, I can see that Birmingham-Walsall works for Next & Ikea, multi-national commercial giants with no links to the town. It’s also used by the Village Hotel & Holiday Inn Express at J10, despite being a £30 taxi ride away from the city named in their branding, so it’s clear that we’re following a commercial pattern here, rather than selling our home town short in isolation. However, in all the other examples, none of the aforementioned businesses has their identity linked to, or an affinity with, the town of Walsall.

They’re shopping outlets and bedrooms branded in garish corporate colours with an ultimate responsibility to their shareholders & banks, utilising zero hour contracts and cheap floor space to maximise global revenues. And before we criticise, if they don’t then someone else will. But be assured, the moment they’re no longer profiting from their square footage in Walsall they’ll be off, evacuating those cut price, out of town premises faster than a rat disappearing up the proverbial drainpipe. They’re not the same as a football club, they don’t have to be.

Unless you’re MK Dons, for obvious reasons, then a football club operates by a different set of principles to that. Their town gives them a name, a character and a personality, blending with geography and history to form each club’s individual identity. The lower leagues are awash with clubs and towns that symmetrically reflect one another – with nothing saying Portsmouth, Barnsley, Mansfield or Colchester clearer than their respective football clubs. Indeed, I challenge you to tell me something that’s more Burnley than a 2/3rds full Turf Moor baying for opposition blood. And you can be fully assured that hell would freeze over before the Turf Moor faithful ever accepted a BFC The Venue : ManchesterBurnley. No, Nay, Never, as the song goes.

Which prompts the question, why compromise your identity and alienate chunks of your fan base in search of an extra sale or two from the geographically gullible? The old song we retort with never challenges the assumption that we are shit, rejecting the notion that we came from Birmingham was always considered the priority. We sing “We don’t come from Birmingham” for a pretty good reason – because we fucking don’t.

And if the club doesn’t understand this or chooses to overlook it then we’re probably even further from understanding and re-finding our identity that even I fear we are.

#MyClubMyTown? #BirminghamWalsall? #NoThanks

From where I’m looking and what I conclude, the stalling of progression in positive sporting direction probably suits the business at the moment. For all of Jeff Bonser’s faults, and I suspect that even his believers will accept there might be a couple, the only time this club has haemorrhaged money in his near quarter century of responsible trading and rent collecting is that early 2000’s spell in what is now the Championship. Like it or not, his record of keeping a controlled rein on the finances of the business is watertight and it rightly defines his time here.

Granted that ITV Digital collapse a decade ago clearly affected our/his financial plans and business model at that time but one look at the financial imbalance of the division right now and the hundreds of millions being collectively lost by the Championship 24 today (£361m in 2015/16 & estimated to be in excess of £400m last season) and I think that if the club fronted up and said the Championship is off their immediate radar then they’d be able to make a listenable case. We might not like what’s being said, indeed its a horrific thought, but the truth will hurt occasionally.

The excellent Price of Football blog produces some remarkable data on football finances and their excellent coverage of The Championship (and clubs similar to us) makes particularly grim reading. A recent article on Millwall demonstrates the real difficulty that one of our traditional third tier companions has experienced in balancing sporting competitively and financial stability both at League 1 level and in aiming for a position higher than 22nd in the league above.

The blog suggests that the previous five years, where 19th in the Championship was Millwall’s highest finishing position, generated total losses (before player sales) of £35.4m. Debts are estimated at £18m and weekly losses at present are a smidgen over £100000.

Below is a direct quote from the blog, which should offer a flavour of the deep financial commitment of Millwall’s generous owner John Berylson

“Berylson’s investment increased further in 2016/17 as he invested a further £3 million in the club via a new share issue. This takes his total investment to just over £56 million, in the form of shares and loans.

Realistically, Berylson will have to subsidise the club by a minimum of £5 million a year for the foreseeable future, unless promotion to the Premier League is achieved.”

That, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a pretty substantial commitment.

Over at Bristol City, another regular lower league opponent, the tale is similar, only more expensive. Bankrolled by Steve Lansdown to the tune of £118m and a with wage bill of £20.9m (ours is around £3.4m) City – before player sales – run at a loss of £370k per week. The past two seasons in the Championship produced finishing positions of 18th & 17th and left them with combined losses of £33.6m. With a wage/income ratio at Ashton Gate running at 99% (meaning £99 in every £100 received is spent on wages) it doesn’t take long to see why the sustainable focussed Bonser would baulk at a similar regime on his own doorstep, irrespective of if he actually had the resources to fund a similar methodology.

Brighton, another long-term lower league comrade, and one who are no strangers to rattling buckets, ran a £1/2m weekly deficit in the final years chasing their recently found Premier League riches. As with Bournemouth, again no strangers to either League 1 or bucket rattling, their promotion wasn’t quite the all-consuming fairy tale the media like to portray, more a percentage based conclusion to outspending your rivals.

All of the above point to the conclusion that the financing of football has moved on and the days of Wheldon and Bonser running sustainable businesses appear incompatible with sporting competitively today, even at League 1 levels. It seems evident that Dean Smith saw this and whilst his exit was clumsy, selfish and particularly poorly timed his summation that it was a “no brainer” has proven itself to be pretty much spot on. Like I said, the truth hurts sometimes.

So who are we? And what are we? Publicly the club appears to maintain that establishing itself in Championship is its absolute goal, a boast that is significantly easier to make than it is to convince as credible. Simply looking at the numbers – both ours and others, the (unsustainable) stretch that similar clubs have had to reach and the way our own five year plan crumbled once it’s key architect departed leaves me to severely doubt if Championship status is achievable or sustainable under the current hierarchy and business model. For a notoriously risk averse business, such a progression looks a lot more than a step too far right now. More a lighthouse staircase.

As for even considering surviving in the Championship, a division so grossly distorted by the blinkered chase for Premier League riches and the failure funding payments on departure, its apparent that you don’t need a business plan as much as you need deep pockets, vast reserves of cash and the nerve to not worry about how quickly you’re going through it. And that just isn’t us.

So who are we?

Are we a football club being run in the right manner – a bastion of doing things the right way but increasingly seeing ourselves as a goldfish in a school of piranha? Are we a solid entertainment & conference business haemorrhaging hard earned profits to a cash thirsty football team who only carry part of our branding? Or are we nothing more than a pension fund contributor running under the cloak of a sporting ambition. Or something else?

Honestly, my heart says Championship, my eyes say League 1 but my head fears its League 2.

The romantic in me concludes that we’re a 1950s Aston Martin in decent condition that’s been housed in a barn and waiting years for someone to open the doors. Spend a few quid, add a bit of fresh air, love, polish and a decent service and we’ll be ready to roar again. The cynic in me sees a rusty taxi, lubricated with cheap oil and held together with scrap yard spares and back street tig welding with a budget Halfords stereo invariably housing a mix-tape of landfill motown. Run it into the ground because its knacker yard bound.

The reality is somewhere in between, reality is where we are today – where Lincoln City is seen as a better long term option, where two year stays and six month loans are the norm, where staying at a level we’ve spent more time in than anyone else is considered a success, where a manager is still to win a single knockout game, where our management team livestreaming reserve fixtures is considered scouting and where squad quality declines alarmingly on a transfer window by transfer window basis. Where the freehold issue simultaneously protects us and complicates our future. Where we’re a season and a half on from missing out on promotion by one goal.

Yes, it could be worse. It could also be better.

But where we are and what level we’re at matters little in the grand scheme of things. Like so many of us, Walsall is my town, my team and I’m ridiculously proud of them both. Even if I’ve no idea of who we are and what we’re about. The club also know this, just as they know that their boundaries are more elastic than the aforementioned Next & Ikea. Piss us about, feed us garbage and we’ll still return for more – for the football supporter there is no alternative provider.

I’d love to boycott and I genuinely admire those who do, but I can’t. I just can’t. Leaving on 80 minutes is the best I can offer.

For better, for worse, forever – none of us follow this football club because it’s easy. It isn’t and it never will be. Whether it be Arsenal, Bradford, Coventry or Darlaston, the opponent is irrelevant, it’s Walsall we go to see and the Walsall identity we both buy into and help to define. We are Walsall.

But the game I love, and the competition we (try to) compete in has been contaminated by money. It appears to have changed forever and I’m not sure we’ve morphed with it. I don’t even think that I’d want us to. Who are we? What are we? Where are we going? Honestly, i have no idea.

 

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One thought on “Identity Crisis

  1. Brilliantly written piece. Captures everything I think about The Saddlers at the present time. And if we don’t get that elusive Benefactor in to buy up Bonser’s Shareholding and Pension Fund, I think that a slowly downward spiral is all that we supporters can expect to happen, particularly as crowds will continue to gradually diminish too. Sad to say, but probably true.

    Liked by 2 people

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