As the curtain draws on another season it feels as though Rovers came their closest yet to breaking the top 6, in JDTs first season in charge.
But what do they need to do to break in to the Top 6? And how can they actually do it within the framework of the existing Profit and Sustainability Rules?
I think most Rovers fans would agree that the main area for improvement is in the steiker position – compounded by the fact that both Ben Brereton Diaz and Bradley Dack have now confirmed their respective departures at the end of their contracts. Before we even look to improve last season’s attacking options, we will have to replace at least two out-goings.
Strikers are also like gold dust, they don’t come cheap; how does the club’s current financial position impact upon options?
Keen followers of my Twitter account - @glennentwistle - will note that Rovers appear to have some wriggle room in terms of the 3-year FFP loss rules – at least £6m by my calculations (assuming losses for the just-finished 2022-23 season are similar to the 2019-20 season excluding the impact of the STC and Armstrong sales).
The Wages/Income ratio is a different issue.
This is one of the most important metrics for measuring the sustainability of a club – for every £1 brought into the club, how much are you spending on wages? The breakeven for sustainability would be to be consistently below 100%, but bear in mind that a ratio of 1:1 (100%) provides no room for spending money on other items e.g. transfers and infrastructure improvements.
For season 2021-22 (starting 1st July 2021), Rovers wages/income % was 146.3% - meaning for every £1 the club brought in, £1.46 was spent on wages. To get to 100%, Rovers would have to either remove £7.7m from the wage bill, or increase income by £7.7m – whilst also improving the squad…
In 2021-22, Rovers spent £24.4m on Staff Costs, made up of £21.4m on wages and salaries, £2.9m on Social Security Costs and £0.12m on Other Pension Costs – lets look a bit closer at this (using some sketchy Football Manager data).
Based on wages listed on FM22 and FM23, player wages (1st Team and Academy) account for roughly £8.4m – for context, Rovers list 209 employees in the accounts, which I work out consists of approxirately 68 players (1st team, U23s and U18s).
For the Waggott-bashers, the three Directors listed in the accounts took home £491k between them (average of £164k each) – in comparison, (based on FM data) Sam Gallagher took home £728k for the year – some might argue that for the wages, the three Directors may have had more luck in front of goal…
Assuming we can’t reduce the number of staff (and maintain the standard of the Academy, STC, and Stadium) for hypothetical purposes, I’ve split the staff wages (£15.9m) equally and added £234k to each players wages – to make the player wage bill equal the £24.4m listed in the accounts (it wouldn’t pass a HMRC audit, but it will do for the purpose of this exercise).
How could we reduce the wage bill by £7.7m?
Now the departures of Ayala, Brereton and Dack have been confirmed, this takes c.£2.6m off the wage bill – bear in mind, Ayala (c.£15k/wk) is the club‘s joint top earner (along with Kaminski), with Dack just behind. With Brereton Diaz not being a top earner (c.£7k/wk), having not signed a new contract also acts against us here as him leaving doesn’t take a huge chunk out of the wage bill.
Where could the other £5.1m come from?
Kaminski is joint highest earner, so moving him on and keeping Pears as the Number 1 frees up a further £1m (before you take into account Pears recent new deal – he was previously on c.£2k/wk, which I would assume has increased). Tayo Edun would free up another £500k a year – still leaving us at £3.6m in the red.
Selling Gallagher frees up a further £960k a year, Dolan another £500k, Markanday £365k and Travis a further £500k – putting us at £1.3m in the red, that will have to do for now..!
In order to get us within almost a million of the breakeven 100% we would have to lose 7 first team regulars and 2 fringe players, not replace them, yet somehow improve the side and break in to the Top 6.
Is there a Plan B?
Plan B is increasing the amount of income the club makes From all possible sources. In 2021-22 Rovers had an income of £16.6m, made up of £3.4m from Matchday, £8.4m from Media, £4.8m from Commercial and £0.08m from Other sources.
Simple maths tells you you’d have to increase all areas by around 46.5% to increase income by the required £7.7m to get to 100%. Assuming the new TV deal in 2024/25 does bring in an extra 50% in in the Media category as hoped, Rovers would still need significant increases in Matchday and Commercial Income.
The Matchday figure of £3.4m for 2021/22 is for a season when the average attendance was 13,501 – meaning a 46.5% increase would need average attendances over a season of just shy of 20,000 per game. We’ll not even look at how the club brings in an extra £2.2m from the Commercial category (Sponsorship deals has to be the big one here, surely).
One further avenue of income growth is player trading - heavily hinted at by Gregg Broughton this week. Rovers are (& in reality have been for almost all of their existence, a few years in the 1990’s apart) a trading club. The option to generate funds via player sales is the final piece of the income growth jigsaw. Expect “develop & sell“ to feature over the next few seasons - the Importance of the academy is brought into sharp focus.
Back to the playing squad – what Rovers need to do is somehow improve the playing squad, whilst ”managing” the wage bill. Key to this, is replacing established first team players on higher wages, with academy graduates still on lower wages – ideally, at least two per season.
For example, replacing Lenihan with Carter, and Rothwell with Adam Wharton reduces the wage bill by £0.73m per year (before you take into account both of their recent new deals).
The other method is signing players who can play in multiple positions, reducing the need for direct cover at every position, whilst reducing the number of players and wages required. This could also allow you to spend a little bit more on wages of a player, because you’re potentially removing another one or two wages off the payroll.
For example, Ryan Hedges played in at least 2 positions last year (left back and attacking midfield), potentially removing £650k per year off the wage bill by providing backup for left back as well.
Callum Brittain also helps in this category with his ability to play right back and left back; and looking to next season, Joe Rankin-Costello could be massive in terms of balancing the books, with his ability to plan at right back, and potentially anywhere in the midfield (assuming he stays fit.
What areas do Rovers need to improve on the pitch? Definitely striker, but lets look at the depth chart (academy players yet to feature or be considered have been omitted).
Those players definitely leaving are listed highlighted red, those who could potentially leave are highlighted in amber, and those who I’d potentially loan out for experience are highlighted in blue. Financially that frees up £2.8m/year from those at the end of their contracts, and £1.5m/year for those being sold – give us a total saving of £4.4m/year.
However, that would leave us short at left back, potentially centre back, central midfield, attacking either side of attacking midfield, and up front. Before we even consider having to replace Kaminski, Edun and Dolan; after those players leaving at the end of their contracts, we would need (at least): 2 x Strikers, 1 x Right/Left Attacking Midfielder, 1 x Central Midfielder, cover at Left Back, and 1 x centre back– at least 6 players (the number Gregg Broughton referenced during his interviews this week).
What I think massively contributed to us not getting over the line in to the top 6 this season was experience, and I truly believe if we could have brought Daniel Ayala off the bench to see out the games against Coventry and Preston, we would have finished four more points on the board. Ayala is also a good example of the sort of player a lot of us would like to see come in – someone who has played at a higher level and who has experience of winning promotion. Unfortunately, these sorts of players don’t come cheap.
One of fans’ favourite pastimes over the summer months is putting names out there of who they think a club needs, who that final piece to the jigsaw is. I do it every season, I also try to be realistic by only looking at free agents – but what that doesn’t take in to account is wages.
The first free agent on my list would be Ollie McBurnie, he’ll be 28 years old by the start of next season, but he is an angry striker who has played in the Premier League and who has won promotion. His wages though would be at least £22.5k per week, £7k per week more than our current top earner.
Let’s think more realistically, what about Lucas Joao. He’s been hit and miss for the last couple of seasons at Reading and his injury record is questionable – but even he is on £15k per wk. Another option might be Lyle Taylor, although he’s 33 now, he hasn’t played for Nottingham Forest this season so may take a pay cut for gametime especially given his age, which he would have to given his current salary is also £15k per wk.
I’m not going to go in depth at every position but for context, I’ve highlighted the following free agents this summer and their wages, just to show how difficult a job the club have to replace outgoings, strengthen, and also work towards a more sustainable financial model:
One area that could be key for Rovers is on the continent with the changes to the GBE (FAs Governing Body Endorsement) rules. Previously players needed to accrue a total of at least 15 points across the six categories of: International Appearances; Domestic Minutes; Continental Minutes; Final league position of last club; Continental progression of player’s last club; and, Quality of the transferor club.
However, these rules are set to change meaning that Premier League and Championship clubs would be able to sign four overseas players without a GBE, as long as the club gave 35% of total playing minutes to English players the previous season (or 3 players if 30-35%, 2 players if 25-30%, or 1 player if 20-25%).
This could completely open up a new market and make deals like the Kaminski one a possibility again – it also opens up a much bigger market than Rovers are currently shopping in.