Sunderland’s Martin O’Neill was victim of a high-stakes game

James McClean' at Sunderland AFC v Manchester United
James McClean' at Sunderland AFC v Manchester United
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COLD, harsh economic reality ultimately proved the toughest opponent of Martin O’Neill’s managerial career. KEVIN CLARK examines how the financial cost of relegation helped seal the fate of the Irishman as team manager.

WITH the Premier League’s biggest-ever TV deal due to kick in next season, the prospect of slipping out of the top flight is simply too awful to contemplate for bosses at the Stadium of Light.

The gap between Premier League and Championship is set to grow wider than ever from 2013-14, with the sale of overseas and domestic TV rights worth more than £5billion over the next three seasons.

And even though the parachute payments made to relegated clubs to help them cope with the financial shock of dropping out of the top flight are to increase, many are still living in fear of demotion more than ever before.

Football’s continuing defiance of the economic downturn was highlighted in last year’s round of negotiations which saw the Premier League’s long-term partner Sky cough up more than £2billion for five of the seven available rights packages.

Domestic TV rights are divided up between the 20 teams according to a complex formula which takes account of league position and the number of times a team actually appears on screen.

Revenue is split into three pots, one containing 50 per cent of the cash and the others 25 per cent. The first pot – half of the overall money – is simply split equally between the clubs.

Under the new deal, that means every Premier League club, including Sunderland, should they survive, will receive £25million a season just for being in the top flight, regardless of where they finish.

The second pot is effectively prize money, split between the teams according to where they finish in the league, and will be worth almost £1.5million per place.

The third pot is dished out between clubs as “facilities fees” according to the number of their matches which are actually screened. Obviously, this tends to favour those sides for which there is most demand.

But income from domestic TV rights is only part of the story. The Premier League has also negotiated worldwide deals worth around £2billion over the next three years. Money from overseas sales is split equally between the clubs, and would pump a further £35million a season into Sunderland’s coffers.

That makes a place at English football’s top table worth a minimum of £60million a season to SAFC even before the payments for games screened are taken into account.

The financial implications of dropping into the Championship could hardly be more stark for the Black Cats – the Premier League does pass some money on to the lower divisions but those second tier clubs not in receipt of parachute payments will receive around £2.5million under the new deal.

Even relegated clubs will get just £23million in their first season outside the Premier League, £18million in the second and £9million in their third and fourth.

Black Cats chairman Ellis Short pulled the plug on O’Neill’s tenure at the Stadium of Light with the club just a point above the relegation zone, and will surely by mindful of the difficulties relegated sides have experienced in returning to the top division.

Of the three teams to go down last year, none are in the top six and just one – Bolton – is anywhere even near a play-off place.

If the worst comes to the worst and Sunderland are relegated, what happens next will depend to a large extent on players’ contracts.

Niall Quinn had witnessed first-hand the effects on the club of a relegation for which is was not properly prepared, and was adamant that no player would ever be taken on without agreeing to a relegation clause in his contract.

The Irishman has long departed the Stadium of Light but the chances of keeping the squad together may well hinge on whether Short and chief executive Margaret Byrne have continued that policy.

If not, they may be forced to sell off high-earning players at a substantial loss just to cut costs.