Leicester sitting pretty
Nick Miller takes a look at the Sky Bet Football League in his monthly column.
- Related Content
By the standards of the 'win yesterday' football world in which we currently live, it was a surprise that Nigel Pearson was still in a job at the start of this season. Given the talent at his disposal, and indeed the money spent on that talent (not, admittedly, all by him), Leicester City's owners might have been justified in thinking that a couple of promotion-less seasons were not good enough.
In 2011/12, Leicester spent big on David Nugent, Kasper Schmeichel, Neil Danns, Matt Mills, Paul Konchesky, Jermaine Beckford, Richie De Laet and others. A lack of progress under Sven Goran Eriksson after much of that money was spent saw the Swede sacked in October of that season, and Pearson was brought back to the club he had left around 18 months earlier.
Promotion was expected, but it didn't arrive. Indeed, they didn't really come that close (or certainly not as close as the investment suggested it should), finishing ninth that season and just scraping into the playoffs, where they were beaten by Watford and Troy Deeney's dramatic late winner, last season. Nevertheless, Pearson remained, but was given a significantly reduced budget, to the extent that the only players recruited last summer were Zoumana Bakayogo and Dean Hammond on frees, and Ignasi Miquel on loan from Arsenal. Those three have only made eight league starts between them, so this is essentially the same squad that underperformed last season.
However, while owners King Power and chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha spent lavishly at first, keeping faith with Pearson is perhaps part of their altogether more sensible way of running things, exemplified by the removal of all the club's debt. Just before Christmas, Srivaddhanaprabha converted all the financial liabilities Leicester had (in effect, debts to him and his family) into shares, meaning Leicester were debt-free. This was obviously done with financial fair play rules in mind, which prevent Football League clubs from operating at a significant loss (they're allowed to be £8million in the red, but no more), in much the same way as the Europe-wide rules are designed to regulate the continent's top clubs.
Srivaddhanaprabha also bought the King Power stadium, which bore his company's name but was actually owned by an American pension fund, last year as well, all of which doesn't quite make Leicester 100% self-sufficient (Srivaddhanaprabha can loan the club more money if he wishes, and probably will), but it certainly makes them a more secure entity and eases concerns that he would simply walk away if the whim took him. It isn't entirely altruistic either, because it makes the club a more attractive proposition if he wishes to sell, but whatever the motivation it is unquestionably good for City, and obviously helps Pearson do his job.
One potential downside of this more 'sensible' approach is the club's reluctance to hand out big contracts to their existing players, already on pretty sizable deals. A number of players, including Nugent and club captain Wes Morgan, as well as Schmeichel and winger Lloyd Dyer, all of whom have been key to Leicester's excellent first half of the season, are out of contract in the summer, and have yet to agree new terms.
"It is a balancing act for us in terms of the financial side and commitments - but also we want to sustain what is a very positive first half of the season," Pearson said last week, remaining hopeful that those players he wants to stay, will.
It would be a huge blow for Pearson if, as part of their sensible model, they would have to sell some of those players as has been rumoured, because Leicester are flying at present. Last Friday's 4-1 demolition of Derby was doubly impressive as it not only maintained their four-point lead at the top of the table (five ahead of third-place QPR), but came against local rivals who had been on a remarkable run of form themselves, dropping just ten from 45 points since Steve McClaren's arrival.
There will be additions to Pearson's squad this month, but they will be altogether more low-key than in previous years. Pearson said recently: "I don't think I have to reiterate that the numbers we are working with are tight, and in an ideal world we would probably like to make one or two additions."
French-Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez has arrived from Le Havre, while Kevin Phillips, recently released from Crystal Palace, will also probably join at some point on a free transfer, but these are tweaks to an already strong squad, which includes youngsters like Liam Moore, a defender with an extremely bright future.
Pearson's side are currently 10/11 favourites with Sky Bet to win the division this season, and just 3/10 for promotion.
It's an indication that, in this most extraordinary of leagues, throwing money at a team is not always the answer.
Good news and Coventry City have not exactly gone together in recent times, but finally they had something to celebrate this week.
The transfer restrictions that have been in place ever since they went into administration last season, which basically meant they had to operate on a 'one in, one out' basis, have been lifted, meaning they can (more or less) operate like a normal club in the transfer market again. They will have to prove to the Football League that they can cover the wages of whoever they buy, but this at least is a step in the right direction.
Of course, the club is still owned by the same people that got them into this mess, they still have to play their 'home' games in Northampton and striker Leon Clarke (scorer of 15 league goals this season) handed in a transfer request last week, but they will take any scrap of encouragement they can get at present.
Managers are usually keen to accentuate the positives, at least in public, but it was interesting to see Bradford manager Phil Parkinson admit that all is not well at Valley Parade at present.
The sale of top-scorer Nahki Wells was perhaps inevitable, but City's fans would have presumably preferred him to go almost anywhere but local rivals Huddersfield. Nevertheless, Wells is now a Terrier after a significant sum of money changed hands, and indeed scored a late winner for his new club at the weekend.
Add this to a spate of injuries in the Bantams squad and a dreadful run of form that has seen them win just one of the last 15 games, including a particularly dispiriting recent loss to struggling Notts County, and it actually isn't all that surprising that spirits are low.
Still, for Parkinson to admit as much is unusual, saying: "With Nahki going, there was always going to be a degree of negativity around the ground because of the popularity of the player - you can't hide away from that."
As early-season hopes of a second successive promotion begin to fade and instead Bradford start to look nervously over their shoulders, Parkinson will have to turn that negativity around, and pretty quickly too.