Fierce competition in the land of the fallen giants

FIRST DIVISION
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The Independent Online
The Premiership may have a claim, albeit tenuous given the dearth of genuine championship contenders, to being the best league in the world. Whether it will be as fiercely competitive as the First Division this season must be doubtful.

The Nationwide League's elite corps is, more than ever, a melting pot of fallen giants, desperate to get in on the television, ticket and merchandising bonanza of the top flight, and upstarts whose natural habitat has tended to be among the Torquays and Halifaxes.

In the circumstances, the promotion race ought to be a carve-up between the haves. Recent history, in the shape of Bolton and Barnsley, and before them a cheaply constructed Sunderland, happily suggests that the have- nots, comparatively speaking, are in with a shout.

Like Bolton's romp to the title, the yo-yo fortunes of Crystal Palace and Leicester demonstrate that the demoted teams have a strong chance of being involved in the shake-up next spring. Encouraging as that may be to Middlesbrough, however, such clubs have usually held on to their best players.

Boro, having replaced Juninho with Paul Merson, may feel that a squad which reached two Wembley finals should be good enough to bounce back up, But uncertainty over the commitment of Fabrizio Ravanelli and other major earners casts a cloud over the Riverside which even David Platt's arrival might not dispel. Their exit might improve the dressing-room spirit; it would also leave Bryan Robson short of quality.

Sunderland, who retain most of the personnel Peter Reid led to the title 18 months ago, may be a better bet. Reid is still buying in dribs and drabs, but there is more cohesive feel about them than with Boro. The fillip of playing in the new Stadium of Light should ensure no relegation hangover.

Nottingham Forest have been busy reinventing themselves under Dave Bassett. Stuart Pearce has gone, but enough of the younger mainstays remain to form the backbone of a side bolstered by some impressive recruitment at home and abroad.

Frank Clark, in charge at Forest until December, effected a heartening recovery at Manchester City. Georgi Kinkladze is still there, crucially, and in the likes of Lee Bradbury, Clark's goalscoring ex-squaddie from Portsmouth, the supporting cast looks considerably improved.

Pompey, meanwhile, are trusting in Terry Venables' Australian connections to offset such sales, a strategy with no obvious precedent for success. Wolves, too, have been conspicuous by their inactivity in the transfer market, with Steve Sedgley and Mixu Paatelainen the only buys.

The chest-beating of Wolves' owner, Sir Jack Hayward, after their play- off defeat was understandable, if a trifle over the top. In the context of a staggering run of injuries, third place was commendable. Moreover, Mark McGhee did his best work on a tight budget at Reading.

Queen's Park Rangers have not only held on to Trevor Sinclair but acquired a proven 20-goal man, Mike Sheron, for pounds 2.5m from Stoke. Rangers still look frail defensively, surprisingly for a side coached by Stewart Houston and Bruce Rioch, but should be fun to watch.

By bringing Brian Deane home from Leeds, Sheffield United found the ideal antidote to the gloom over Howard Kendall's walk-out. A sound managerial appointment - Lou Macari? - should find them pressing into the play-off zone again. It is less easy to be optimistic about Ipswich, where George Burley is again having to wheel and deal.

Nor do Birmingham appear any more likely to make the breakthrough. After the revolving-door policy of the Barry Fry era, Trevor Francis has not been able to bring in enough of the better-quality players demanded by David Sullivan and his co-owners.

The chances of anyone doing a Barnsley must, in truth, be slender. Crewe and Port Vale espouse similar values but do not have the strength in depth. Stoke, who have a new manager in Chic Bates, a new ground and a useful replacement for Sheron in Peter Thorne, from Swindon, may be a better bet.

Bradford City, where Chris Kamara rebuilt a prematurely promoted team just in time to stave off the drop in May, may also be a surprise packet if they can sustain the momentum.

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