Anti-Moneyball FM: Introduction, Part 1
Thanks to the prevalence of the ideas found in books like Moneyball and Soccernomics, at this point it feels like there is some conventional wisdom about the best way to build a football club on FM:
- Sign young players: restrict signings to under-23s with potential, develop them, give them a platform to showcase their talent, sell them on at a profit, reinvest and repeat
- Have a vision: identify a playing style and a formation that you think is conducive to success and exclusively recruit players to fit that style; avoid wasted spending on square pegs for your round holes. Implement said playing style across your youth teams so you’re coaching players to fit the system from the earliest possible point. This is where all of your impossibly wanky Club DNA documents come in
- Be a selling club: embrace the idea that every player has a price and sell your players at their peak before they decline, so you’re not paying first team wages to knackered old players in their twilight years
- Build a worldwide scouting network: appoint the best scouts you can, use their expert eyes to scour the globe for unearthed gems and undervalued players so you can scoop them up for a pittance before your rivals
- Use data: utilise analytics to help you identify players who excel at things your system requires and overlooked by the footballing public. Bring these under-the-radar players in for cheap
- Invest in your academy: develop your own youth players to fill out your squad and save money on transfer, signing-on, and agent fees
- Create a development pathway: ensure that the players your academy are churning out have opportunities for competitive first team football, either at your club or out on loan at a feeder club
- Invest in your facilities: spend your money on enhancing your youth system and your training ground to enable you to enact the player development parts of the plan more effectively
… this is not going to be that.
The above set of ideas are all about sustainable growth, about creating a cycle of incremental improvement that the club benefits from as it moves up through the leagues.
I’m not interested in sustainability. Instead, we’re going to throw all of those principles out of the window, fly in the face of that conventional wisdom and see how far we can get in 5 years by doing the complete opposite.
This isn’t about designing a 5-year plan and progressing through it step by step though; this is 5 one-year plans back-to-back, living in a perpetual present to achieve success as quickly as possible.
For this medium term file to have room for upward mobility, I decided that I’d opt for the club who are (at the time of writing) bottom of the entire football league: Gillingham FC.
We’re replacing the outgoing Neil Harris and taking the reins at Kent’s only professional football club. Relegated from League One last season and predicted to finish 7th according to FM’s season preview suggest that Gills are a strong proposition on paper but a quick look at the real life league table tells a different story: on Boxing Day, Gillingham lost a bottom of the table clash against Colchester United which has left them 3 points adrift of safety. Worse than that, they’ve scored a pitiful 6 goals in their 21 league games thus far shows the uphill struggle we’ve got ahead of us in our first season.
IRL, Gills have just been bought out by American property magnate Brad Galinson and signed striker Tom Nichols from Crawley to kick off their new regime. We’re going to have to do without Nichols’ firepower and Galinson financial muscle here though. With that established, it’s time to meet our manager.
Introducing… Penny Pincher:
I used the suggested coaching badges and playing experience for a club at our standard and then tinkered with our manager attributes to reflect the way I’ll be playing this save: we’re not using young players so Working With Youngsters and Youngster Knowledge are waste, and I’ve not loaded leagues outside of England so there’s little point in having points in Adaptability. I dumped the mental attribute points I freed up into Motivating, Level of Discipline, and Determination to help me deal with the board and with the senior players I’ll bringing into the club. On the coaching side, I min-maxed away from Fitness and Goalkeeper Coaching skills and filled out everything else relevant.
At this juncture I should point out that, despite Penny Pincher’s name, this save isn’t about making money or about generating profit — it’s about trimming the fat to ensure we maximise the amount of money that gets onto the pitch on every match day.
Gills start with about £500k in the bank and their finances are rated as “Okay”. That sounds alright but I’m not going to get carried away, run at a huge loss, and financially cripple the club by racking up debt in order to chase success. In my mind, this number should be as close to zero as possible by the end of the season; we’re not trying to live beyond our means but we are going to spend every resource we have available on the first team.
The board have outlined a starting transfer budget of £25k and a potential wage budget of around £40k p/w. You might have already spotted a problem: with our current level of committed spending on wages (£39,035 p/w), we’ll burn through the club’s cash reserves in just over 4 months, even if we don’t spend a penny on anything else. Either we need to slash that wage bill or we need to free up some cash from elsewhere.
So far we’ve established what we’re not going to do, so let’s change track and establish what we are going to do and explain some of the reasoning behind it.
Club philosophies and vision
This is what the club want us to do:
On the culture side of things, the board’s demands for attacking and entertaining football with players based in England from the lower leagues is fine by me. Developing players using the club’s youth system is going to be a problem though. I’m gonna do my best to work around that and hopefully the board will see things my way eventually. Thankfully the supporters are much less specific in their desires, simply wishing for progress of any description.
On the vision side, working within the wage budget is exactly what we’ll be doing anyway and a top half finish in League Two this season seems fair and doable.
So how’re we going to achieve that?
1)Sign Older Players
Our transfer policy is simple: we bring in no-one under the age of 26, with a priority given to players who are 30+. Players of this age are at the peak of their powers, more mentally developed, and provide better leadership. If that comes at the expense of some athleticism, so be it. We’ll find a way around that.
I won’t actively seek to sell any of our players who fall outside the defined age bracket yet because major squad upheaval can be disruptive for morale. But if offers come in for them, I’ll move them on.
More broadly, as we’re not driven by a sell-reinvest cycle, I’ll be rejecting any incoming offers for my best players. If we really want to win in the here-and-now, it’s vital we keep hold of our most talented individuals. If that becomes an issue, I’ll just crack the whip and get them in order.
The existing squad looks like this:
Age-wise, it’s not too bad, with most of our big players fitting our desired 26+ age profile. That said, there are some younger players here, but they’re largely loanees and fringe players so nothing to be too concerned about.
We can’t terminate the loans of those borrowed players in the same window they joined, so we may as well use them for the duration of this season (or until January at least).
Something else to consider is squad size. In my other saves, I like having a small squad — continuity in team selection helps team cohesion, keeps team morale high as you have fewer players potentially getting upset about game time, and leads to a more streamlined decision-making process in general.
I think keeping it small makes sense in this file, too. You can only get a maximum of 16 players on the pitch every matchday so it makes sense to spend as much as we can on the core players we’re going to use the most. We’ll risk the consequences that a lack of depth might cost us and cross that bridge if we get to it.
2)Bin Off the Academy
It’s a waste of time.
Kent has a population of ~1.5 million people, which in theory should give us a decent catchment area to draw young players from, considering we’re the only professional football club in the county. In reality, the proximity to London means the best talent is going to get hoovered up by the established academies in the capital anyway.
The other main factor is one of patience. Excluding truly generational talents, any kid coming into the academy at 17/18 is going to need 4–5 years of development before they’re even beginning to get up to first team level. Clearly that isn’t conducive to the short term success that we’re chasing.
Our facilities currently range from shocking to poor across the various aspects that influence youth development and it would cost a fortune to get all of those to a point where they’re regularly producing quality homegrown players. So, rather than continuing to roll the dice in the hopes of fluking our way into a superstar, we’re going to ditch as much of the structure as we can.
Gillingham don’t run an under-23 team which is a plus as it’s some extra staff and players I don’t have to worry about. This is the current state of the under-18 squad:
We’ve got Bailey Akehurst a massive £300 p/w on a full-time contract and a further 17 players on surely criminally low £5 p/w youth contracts. We loan out Akehurst to Boreham Wood who pick up 80% (£240p/w) of his contract, but the rest aren’t worth the termination fees. I’ll just release them at the end of the season.
Projected Saving: £12,400 from Akehurt’s loan.
That left the staff to deal with.
Clearly we had no use for a Head of Youth Development, so he’s gone.
The Under-18 squad only employ a manager and one coach but as we’re not running an Under-18 team, there’s no need for them either.
Looking at the first team, it’s already pretty lean with a Fitness Coach, a Goalkeeping Coach, and my Assistant Manager the only coaching staff on the books, along with a Head Performance Analyst and part time Analyst working under him. David Livermore, my Assistant Manager, was on more cash per week than me, so he’s getting binned — what does he really provide that I can’t do myself?
All in, that leaves us like so:
We paid out £198k upfront in order to save ourselves £183k over the next two years.
I think looking at the numbers here highlights how much of a gamble running an academy can be for smaller budget sides: if you purely look at the money it costs to pay the staff who were coaching and managing our under-18 players we’d need to produce a player worth £100k every year or a player worth £500k every 5 years to break even. And that’s not factoring in wages you’d be paying to all those prospects that don’t pan out. Or your outlay on facilities and equipment.
Obviously it’s not quite as cut and dried as that — if you are producing these players for your first team, that’s money you’re not spending on transfer fees, agent fees, and probably saving on wages. But even so, you have to be quite prolific (or lucky) to make it a worthwhile endeavour.
We’re also currently sinking ~£22k every month into the “Youth Setup”, which is a combo of the youth recruitment network and the youth coaching. I asked the board to reduce spending on these but they said no. I’ll try again another time.
Projected Saving: If you tally all of that up, we’re £200k better off for the year.
3)Bin Off the Scouts
I don’t need an expensively assembled team of scouts and analysts telling me which players to sign — I’ll be using my own judgement and listening to offers we receive from agents to decide potential transfer targets. If I’m uncertain on someone, I’ll watch them live to see if they pass my eye test.
Gillingham are surprisingly understaffed in this department, with only a Chief Scout (£800 p/w) (former EFL set piece wizard Nicky Shorey, no less) and another scout working with him (£525 p/w) on the books. We have no use for either of those on that kind of money, so they’re gone.
The board have ring-fenced £44.5k for the annual scouting budget, which I’m not going to use, so that’s an additional saving right there.
Projected Saving: we’ve got £45k per year here that we won’t be spending.
4)Get a Senior Affiliate
This is mostly just a way to acquire another revenue stream. The likelihood of us actually being able to borrow any 26+ y/o players from a team higher up the pyramid is slim, but it’s an extra couple of quid coming into the club every year, with no downsides for us.
Unfortunately the board turn down my request for a senior affiliate at this stage, but I’ll have another go once the season’s up and running.
- We’ve got about £20k worth of debt leaving the club every month until 2025. Not much I can do about that but worth keeping an eye on.
- We’re owed 20% of the next fee for Elliot List.
- QPR will pay us £100k after Joe Walsh meets the threshold of 10, 25, and 50 league games for them, as well as 10% of his next transfer fee.
- We also have a vested interest in Blackburn Rovers, and Bradley Dack in particular, doing well; we’re due £200k if Rovers are promoted from the Championship and we’re due 10% of the profit on Dack’s next transfer fee (they signed him for £750k). We can sell this for ~£100k right now which I’m tempted to do as his contract expires in June 2023. I’ll monitor how many games he’s playing for them at the start of the season.
Projected Saving/Gain: £200k if Blackburn have a good season. Potentially much more if Dack does.
Taking everything into consideration, we’ve freed up around £250k a year for the club by taking the scalpel to everything we possibly can. That’s the equivalent of a couple of decent players at League Two level. The termination fees have cost us ~£200k upfront but in the long run, we’ll benefit from being a much leaner outfit. In future windows, that’s money we’ll be able to put towards the first team. Hopefully it pays off on the pitch.