Thursday, 4 August 2011

Does Seven into Five Go?

Following his recent election to the Football League board Carlisle United Chief Executive John Nixon gave the world his killer idea to safeguard the future of lower league football and keep clubs living within their means - reducing the number of matchday subs a side is able to name from seven to five. The motion was duly brought and passed so, as of this Saturday, club benches the country over will be bearing rather less weight than they've become accustomed to.

Nixon's rationale seemed sensible; the measure would save the 72 league clubs an aggregate figure of £10 million pounds, no drop in the ocean when it comes to the funding of what are, essentially, hand to mouth social enterprises. His track record of stabilising a hitherto shaky Carlisle will surely have carried sway with those who saw him as a sage and wise advisor.

It hasn't gone down well universally though - South Coast based shrinking violet and Brighton gaffer Gus Poyet has gone on record lambasting the move which will stop his youngsters (he named the promising Jake Caskey) experiencing big matchdays and tasting a small amount of first team action.

So who's right?

The figure of '£10 million' raised a few eyebrows at Keith Mincher Towers when it was quoted; it seemed awfully large. A bit of 'back of the envelope' maths seems to bear out that notion too.

So what are the overheads of naming an extra two players in the matchday squad; travel and accommodation are obvious, as are a few sundries such as post match pizzas, strapping and kit washing (lets assume all kits are washed after every game) as well as appearance bonuses should the player get onto the pitch and goal bonuses should the substitution fulfil its aim.

Based on a small sample of hotels close to Carlisle away fixtures this season (Bournemouth, Stevenage and Yeovil - all prices correct as at 2 August using comparison site Kayak) the average price for dinner, bed and breakfast at a 4* hotel is £136 based on two sharing (as is normal practice on away days). If we use this across the 13 potential overnight stays Carlisle may have this year (Bournemouth, Brentford, Charlton, Colchester, Exeter, Leyton Orient, Milton Keynes, Notts County, Scunthorpe, Stevenage, Walsall, Wycombe, Yeovil) then the potential accomodation cost is £1,768 per season. The club travel to games by executive coach - its probably a fair assumption that the cost is the same regardless of number on board.

Assuming the cost of 'sundries' is £50 per game this works out at £650 per season.

For appearance and goal bonuses I've used Nixon's own rule that a player must play 15 minutes to gain the appearance bonus. Let's say two substitutes meet this in every game at £200 per appearance - this works out £18,400 per season. Going further and suggesting that a sub scores in half of these games that's another £4,600.

The total financial cost to Carlisle United of having two extra subs is thus potentially £25,418. This is a 'worst case' scenario wherein any sub used is from the 'extra' and so are goals scored.

If we extrapolate this £25,000 figure across the seventy two FL clubs we arrive £1.8 million per season. A significant figure but hardly in the ball park of Nixon's '£10 million'.

This calculation also ignores what I'd call the 'opportunity cost' of the change - this is what policy makers use to decide whether to go ahead with changes in Government direction or business strategy. It appears to be totally absent from the Football League's reasoning; this isn't surprising given it'd be incredibly difficult to quantify.

The initial thought on how to work out the opportunity cost of this change in rules was to look over Carlisle's results for the last couple of seasons and work out how much they'd have lost in prize money if they (theoretically at least) had less access to 'bench' alternatives. A quick e-mail to the Football League later and it was apparent that the 'prize' awards for places 3 to 24 were the same; there is no direct financial incentive for avoiding relegation, or winning the play-offs.

That isn't to say that there aren't benefits or disbenefits or promotion or relegation though. Coming back to Carlisle; they gained three points through the positive intervention of substitutes in 2010/11 - a meagre return for sure but the difference between finishing twelfth (top half) and seventeenth. Directly this meant the club was seeded for the League Cup (though copped a frustratingly tough draw away at Oldham) and indirectly it'll have put a smile on a few Cumbrian faces and could have helped the tenor of summer transfer negotiations.

Going back another year and the Cumbrians took 12 points from losing or drawing positions thanks to the input of subs (mostly Scott Dobie and Joe Anyinsah). This was the difference between finishing fourteenth and twenty-first - in the relegation zone. The opportunity cost here is much easier to visualise, if not quantify, lower league football means worse players, lower crowds and greater supporter antipathy. Surely that wouldn't go down well with Mr Nixon's punters?

It's impossible to know whether those substitutes who 'positively intervened' in games wouldn't have made the squad under the new rule and thus difficult to say how many, if any, of these points may have been lost. However, given that most positive interventions come from attacking substitutes it may be fair to assume that at least some of this gain would be lost. During the last season Carlisle manager often fielded as many as three forwards on the bench - there is no such luxury this campaign if all wventualities are to be covered.

An interesting aside come from Carlisle's Johnstone's Paint Trophy form. In reaching the final in both of the last two seasons, and winning in April, they needed the help of substitutes in progressing three times. One of these was a late equaliser from striker Jason Price in a first round tie against Port Vale last summer - the only defining act of his season in Cumbria. We can work out the opportunity cost of these changes - Carlisle's owners have stated that both runs to the final were worth £300,000 each to the club. Alas, the JPT has had a five subs rule since its inception.

The other lost opportunity is that flagged by Poyet - the chance to blood young players in match situations. In raising this issue he makes a fair point but one wonders whether he overstates it a little (in his usual flamboyant style). Is there anything Jake Caskey could learn from an 88th minute appearance at Portman Road which he couldn't learn better on loan at Gillingham?

So the £10 million saving is seemingly pie in the sky and the cost of losing those extra options could just see sides troubles compounded. Doesn't seem like such a sensibe idea any more...