The English Premier League season is over, the professional divisions beneath it have completed their full set of fixtures as well. Aside from the always-dramatic playoffs, promotion and relegation have already been decided. The Championship was the league to watch on the last day of the season, with Derby County battling against the drop after a dreadful run of form under the management of legendary former England striker Wayne Rooney in his first managerial role. At first, it seemed that the club would retain their Championship standing with a draw against Sheffield Wednesday. Now, the position is far less clear.
All season long, the club has been beset by financial issues. A few months ago, a takeover was supposed to be completed, which would give the Rams new ownership and new financial backing. As of the time of writing, it still hasn’t gone through. All of the necessary paperwork is believed to have been signed and filed, but the deal is being held up for reasons that nobody appears to be able to get to the bottom of. In the meantime, scrutiny of Derby’s finances is intensifying. On Monday 10th May, only two days after the club’s escape from the threat of relegation, a terrifying new possibility appeared on the horizon for Derby fans. Even though they amassed enough points to retain their league position, they might still go down thanks to a potential legal challenge.
The issue hinges on a legal challenge brought by the English Football League itself, which has found Derby to be in breach of Financial Fair Play rules. The matter went to appeal, but a ruling has now been handed down in favour of the EFL. That leaves the EFL free to impose sanctions on Derby, and it’s thought that those sanctions might be applied to their standing this season as opposed to next season. The EFL has several enforcement options here. They could impose a fine, impose a points deduction, or do both. Derby County stayed up by one point. Even the smallest points deduction would result in them being relegated – and that’s of interest to Wycombe Wanderers, who finished one place below Derby and ended up in the final relegation position.
The matter was thought to have been dealt with last August when the EFL brought two separate charges against Derby for breaching FFP rules.
The disciplinary commission cleared them at the time, but the EFL was unhappy with the ruling. The matter rumbled on in the background for months but has now resurfaced at the least opportune time for the club and its fans. It’s understood that the appeal was eventually successful because of a specific violation of rules surrounding player valuation, with Derby’s owners having been found to be at fault. American Mel Morris – who remains the owner of Derby County until the takeover goes through – did not factor in the depreciation of player assets in the club’s most recent accounts. The net effect of that was to mask or remove what would otherwise have been approximately thirty million pounds worth of losses over the past three years.
If Derby were to be relegated, the entire takeover could be at risk.
The club’s proposed buyers currently believe they’ve bought a team in the Championship. A team in League One, two divisions below the promised land of the Premier League, would be a very different and far less attractive proposition. Erik Alonso, the Spanish businessman who’s set to take over, might take the opportunity to withdraw his interest if relegation transpires to be the outcome of this long-winded process. That would leave Derby under enormous financial pressure and facing an uncertain future. We’ve seen this happen before with former English Premier League teams that have struggled after being relegated, with Portsmouth and Bolton Wanderers being the highest-profile of the most recent examples.
All of this is ironic for a company that only two years ago was riding high off an endorsement from a high profile online slots company. It was, in fact, the gambling and online slots money that resulted in Wayne Rooney coming to the club as a player. His shirt number corresponded to the name of the online slots company in question, which itself proved to be controversial at the time as a possible breach of gambling regulations. Completing a takeover of Derby with the threat of relegation hanging over the club would be a bigger gamble than you’d ever find at Rose Slots NZ. Every gambler occasionally loses, though – a fact of the hobby that any online slots player will already be familiar with – and this might be one of those losing bets for both Derby’s current and potential future owners.
The lay of the land as it stands is currently unclear. The EFL knows it will face supporter fury if it imposes a points deduction that sees Derby relegated but has to be seen to impose its own rules. That’s especially true after fighting so hard to have its findings upheld in the first place. Wycombe Wanderers is already understood to be considering filing a separate legal challenge citing the unfairness of Derby staying up in their place after being found guilty of breaching such important rules. Having been through the appeals process already, most analysts agree that Derby is unable to challenge the ruling. It must, therefore, comply with any order that the EFL makes. It’s likely that the English FA will have to get involved in the matter. It could even fall on UEFA or FIFA to get involved.
While no club should get away with breaching rules that everybody else has to comply with, this would be an enormous shame for Derby County’s fans. Only two seasons ago, they were unlucky to miss out on promotion to the Premier League under the management of Frank Lampard. Now they stand on the brink of disaster through no fault of their own, with a rookie manager struggling at the helm and a complete lack of stability behind the scenes. Whatever action the EFL takes has to be taken quickly. Both Derby and Wycombe need to begin preparing for next season, and knowing which division they’ll be competing in is a huge part of that. The financial costs of relegation are considerable even outside the Premier League, and budgets will be set accordingly. The sweet feeling of relief didn’t last long for Derby. What comes next might be even worse.