There’s a simple explanation for Bournemouth and Watford’s rise to the top flight: money
If you’re unfamiliar with the Championship, let a Leicester City fan who has experienced several seasons in the division tell you: it’s a fucking bloodbath.
The 2014/15 season has had roughly seven teams, all coming from various backgrounds, in and around the promotion places. Derby County, Brentford, Ipswich Town, Norwich City, Middlesbrough, and Wolverhampton Wanderers have featured in the scramble, with all but two—Norwich and ‘Boro—ultimately missing out on the playoff final. That match, often dubbed the £90 million game, will take place on May 25.
But for now, let’s focus on the two teams that have already been promoted and thus saved their fans hours of playoff-induced heart-attacks.
Bournemouth’s ascent to the Premier League has been widely celebrated by fans, journalists, and basically any living biped, given the underdog narrative. If you thought Burnley was a fairytale story, just wait until you hear about the Cherries, whose home base, Dean Court, has a capacity of just 11,700.
They sat in 21st place in League One when former player Eddie Howe returned to manage the club for a second time in October 2012. Survival, both in a footballing and financial sense, would have been enough to please a desperate fanbase, but Howe won them promotion to the Championship for the first time since 1990. And this year the wonderful tale of tiny Bournemouth continued, with the team topping the table to gain promotion yet again, this time to the Premier League—the club’s first-ever promotion to England’s top flight.
The rise of Bournemouth has been lauded as a miracle. But technically, a miracle is defined as “an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency.” The ascent of the South Coast club has certainly been extraordinary and welcome—yet is has also been fairly explicable.
A quiet, often isolated Russian by the name of Maxim Demin owns the club, and has poured in substantial funds. It’s been reported that Bournemouth sustained losses of more than £10M during the 2013/14 season, mostly due to high player wages. To compare, Yeovil Town who were promoted alongside Bournemouth, recorded a profit of £1.4M. To use an obscure canine analogy, the Cherries appear to be a rather plump Labrador, deceptively stashed inside the body of a skinny mongrel.
Taxidermy aside, these timely injections of capital into the club can be translated into a few decisions in recruitment. Top scorer Callum Wilson was signed last summer, for a fee believed to be around £3 million. They beat out numerous rivals with, at the very least, a competitive wage offer. In addition, the club were flush enough to facilitate loan moves for Kenwyne Jones and Artur Boruc. Jones, the bulky forward, is still on a hefty Premier League-level wage, as is goalkeeper Boruc. These aren’t the actions of a club that has come across promotion to the top tier entirely by accident.
Watford, the other team to win automatic promotion this season, let the Championship title slip from their grasp on the final day when they drew at home to Sheffield Wednesday, who unwittingly ruined thousands of bets. The Hornets will celebrate just as merrily, though—in the last six years, the team finishing second in the Championship has placed above the winners in the following Premier League season.
Famous for being Elton John’s supported team and notorious for wearing yellow, Watford have not ascended to the lucrative lands of the top flight in an orthodox manner. Four managers in 37 days definitely does not conform to the usual ideals of consistency leading to progress. The average tenure of a Championship boss is around a year—or 1/19th of a Wenger—so managerial turmoil isn’t surprising to anyone. But to experience such extensive turnover, and then to get promoted in spite of it, is simply unprecedented.
There’s far less of a plucky feel to Watford, though, with significant reproval directed at the owners. Giampaolo Pozzo, who also owns Granada CF and Udinese, purchased his stake in Watford in 2012. In what’s surely an unrelated coincidence, Watford have received several talented players from those two clubs over the past few years. Eleven of the 28-man squad, including the third-highest scorer, Matej Vydra, have previously turned out for either of the two sister clubs, and the squad itself includes 16 different nationalities. And while loans are a habitual portion of every Championship squad nowadays, Watford has taken it to a new level, forcing the Football League in 2013 to limit the maximum number of loanees that can be in match-day squads to five. This, however, has been partially circumvented with “permanent” deals that can quickly be reversed back to Granada or Udinese.
From the stories of Bournemouth and Watford emerges a depressing moral, and a sad truth: fans of Championship clubs just have to hope that they are next in line for a mysterious consortium who can boost the quality of the players by any means necessary. It only takes a brief glance over recently promoted sides—Leicester City, Hull City, Southampton—to see clubs that were beneficiaries of wealthy ownership. No wonder so many people were ready to fall in love with Burnley this season.
There are obviously thresholds for fans: Vincent Tan’s favorite color was not appreciated by Cardiff City supporters when it was imparted all over their team, and he ultimately conceded defeat earlier this year, allowing the club to revert to its traditional blue. QPR, meanwhile, have seen themselves sucked into a gorge of swollen contracts as a direct result of their initially deep pockets.
But the lesson remains: provide a substantial level of raw capital and catapult yourself over those that can’t match your checkbook. When observing from this wider perspective, even the feel-good narrative of Eddie Howe and his tiny team-that-could absorbs a darker hue from the continuous brush of modern football.
Yet this has long been the way of the beautiful game. As it turns out, money can buy happiness, of sorts.