It looks like a collision of the condemned.
Reading and Queens Park Rangers, the bottom two clubs in the Premier League, meet at the Madejski Stadium on Sunday waiting to be put out of their misery. Ten points adrift with only four games remaining, the threat of relegation looms large for two clubs whose approach to the season could hardly have been more different – yet is almost certain to end with the same miserable outcome.
While Reading were frugal spenders last summer and stand accused of never giving themselves a chance to survive in the top flight, QPR cast their net far and wide, broke their transfer record twice and, in the eyes of many, committed financial suicide. Whatever the postmortems reveal, the objective for both next season is to secure an immediate return, which is a lot easier said than done.
Since the Premier League's inception in 1992-93, only 16 teams have won promotion at the first attempt following relegation. It is sobering to think that a higher number of clubs have suffered another relegation over the seasons that follow, 13 have gone into administration and four have slipped into the fourth tier. There is, in other words, no easy way back.
Harry Redknapp has already outlined his blueprint for success in the Championship. Based on the promotion he won with Portsmouth 10 years ago, the QPR manager has talked about the importance of being able to "freshen it up" and how that task was made easier at Fratton Park because "an awful lot of players were out of contract". At QPR, however, Redknapp will not have that luxury.
As things stand QPR have 25 established players whose contracts run at least until the end of next season. Rob Green, Luke Young, Anton Ferdinand, Armand Traoré, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Shaun Derry, Alejandro Faurlín, Park Ji-sung, Jermaine Jenas, Stéphane Mbia, Bobby Zamora, Andy Johnson, Jay Bothroyd and Djibril Cissé have 12 months remaining; José Bosingwa, Adel Taarabt, Joey Barton and Jamie Mackie have two years still to run; Júlio César, Nedum Onuoha, Samba Diakité, Junior Hoilett and Esteban Granero signed contracts that expire in 2016 while Christopher Samba and Loïc Rémy have another four years left on their deals.
While there may well be offers for players such as Mbia, Taarabt, Júlio César, Green, Granero, Hoilett and Rémy, who has a buyout clause in his contract, it promises to be a major struggle to offload others, in particular Young, Cissé, Wright-Phillips, Zamora, Johnson, Barton and Bosingwa, all of whom are in their 30s and earning north of £40,000 a week.
As for Samba, the extraordinary financial package QPR put together to sign him looks more ludicrous by the day.
"I fear for QPR. They have given wages that are total madness," says David Sullivan, West Ham United's co-owner. "I said to Tony Fernandes [the QPR owner], it's a bold move in January when you sign three or four more players on huge wages. He said: 'Well, it's one last throw of the dice.'
"It's almost unlucky they were having a bit of a run because it gave the board the belief that they could survive. Now they've got a chance in 100. How they get rid of some of the players I do not know."
The parachute payments, which from the start of next season rise from £48m over four years to closer to £60m, will help, although QPR's financial mess – they lost £23m last year and have spent a fortune on wages, transfer fees and the termination of Mark Hughes's contract since then — will not be resolved by that windfall alone.
Sullivan, who suffered relegation twice with Birmingham and once with West Ham but on each occasion won promotion to the Premier League the next season, predicts QPR will make a huge loss, which could have severe implications in terms of the Football League's financial fair play regulations further down the line. "QPR will get about £25m in parachute payments next season," Sullivan says. "But total income next year won't be £40m. And I bet their wage bill will be £70-80m. I would say next season they will lose £50m even after the parachute payment."
The influence parachute payments have on the promotion shakeup is often overstated. Since 1995-96, when the Premier League was reduced to 20 clubs, only 20 of the 51 promotions were achieved by teams benefitting from those handouts. As for the eight clubs currently receiving the £48m package agreed in 2010, Birmingham are treading water in the Championship, Blackpool, Burnley, Blackburn and Wolves are at risk of being relegated to League One while Portsmouth will start next season in League Two. Only Hull, on course to win automatic promotion, and Bolton, who occupy the final play-off place, have the chance to go up in 2013-14.
While Reading have relegation clauses in place for every player, which means one of the lowest wage bills in the Premier League will immediately be brought in line with a number of other Championship clubs, few at QPR have similar agreements, adding to their financial woes.
The one comfort for QPR fans is that they have wealthy benefactors behind the club, including the vice-chairman, Amit Bhatia, who is the son-in-law of Lakshmi Mittal, the fourth richest man in the world. Together with the backing provided by Fernandes and his Malaysian business partners, QPR have the wherewithal to swallow the costs of relegation.
Last month, though, QPR secured a £15m loan from Barclays Bank, which raised a few eyebrows and it remains to be seen how long successful businessmen will be prepared to throw good money after bad. "If the owners and directors support them fully and keep that side together, you'd have to think it has got to be good enough to get them back up," Sullivan says. "But is it? Is it just a lot of older players who are paid so much they've got no incentive to get promotion?"
At Reading, the financial fallout will be nothing like as damaging. Their outlay in the transfer market last summer was less than £5m, which Anton Zingarevich, the club's Russian owner, has since admitted was a mistake. Jimmy Kébé, the Reading winger, hit the nail on the head in December when he said: "We are a good Championship team trying to compete in the Premier League."
Reading brought in about £23m in player sales in the two years following relegation from the top flight in 2008 but there will be no repeat of those sort of figures this time around. The squad that Nigel Adkins will bring down is nowhere near as talented as the one relegated under Steve Coppell and, other than Alex McCarthy, the highly-rated goalkeeper, it is hard to imagine Premier League clubs picking away at the carcass.
For Sullivan, it is just a relief to be watching from afar. "You lose money in every direction after relegation," he says. "The big thing is the wages. You could axe 20 staff on £20,000 a year and it saves you £400,000, and you've hacked your administration to bits. It's awful. But one player can be on £3m a year and you can't shift him. I had players on £30,000 a week and you offer them £1m to go and they won't. But you can't just prune, prune, prune. You've got to go out and bring in new faces, I totally believe that."
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