Football: Hot chase for treasure island map

Norman Fox studies the leading contenders in a first-rate First Division
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The Independent Online
If The cost of relegation from the Premiership can now be counted in millions, equally the incentive for an immediate return has never been greater. The threat of a reduced top division is nagging in accountants' minds. So the newly promoted sides, Bolton Wanderers, Barnsley and Crystal Palace, need no reminding that beneath them in the Nationwide League First Division this season there are a handful of clubs too big historically and with too many financial commitments to take the old, patient "consolidate and come back stronger" approach.

Soon any club with high ambitions, a new or expensively refurbished stadium and a wage bill to match will have to accept that the name of the game is Premiership riches or breadline football. Obviously this season none of the First Division clubs needs to return to the treasure island of the Premiership more urgently than Middlesbrough, who having lost Juninho to Atletico Madrid and despite the arrival for pounds 5m of Paul Merson, were mightily relieved when Fabrizio Ravanelli returned.

If the other First Division clubs in the running for promotion envy Boro's strike power, they can take heart from the likelihood that a dodgy defence will still leak goals. So when William Hill looked favourably on the possibility of a Ravanelli-Merson understanding and quoted Boro at 9-2 favourites for promotion, they must have assumed that this season Boro will regularly score more than they concede rather than the other way round.

The North-east must surely have a big say in promotion now that Sunderland are under pressure to justify their fine new stadium. They made a shrewd move in buying Lee Clarke, but, surprisingly, the bookmakers are showing just as much confidence in Nottingham Forest making an immediate comeback. Last season Forest relied far too much on a lonely Dean Saunders in attack. A lot depends on the long awaited return from injury of the match-winning Steve Stone. The club have been in turmoil for too long and though the loss of their player-manager Stuart Pearce to Newcastle is not to be underestimated on the field it does leave a clearer managerial path for the pragmatic Dave Bassett.

The curious business of football clubs inviting managers who fail elsewhere to take over as if nothing ever happened continued when Forest's cordial former boss Frank Clark was invited to manage Manchester City whose mid- table position last season yet again left expectancy unfulfilled. Yet City have a squad with a high proportion of players capable of more than the sum of their achievements - nothing new at Maine Road.

Queen's Park Rangers remain one of those clubs you can never quite identify as being naturally Premiership material but they always seem a shade too sophisticated for the First Division. The pounds 2.5m purchase of the former England Under-21 international Mike Sheron, who scored 24 goals for Stoke last season, could repay them. Meantime, the talented Kevin Gallen, who suffered cruciate knee ligament damage a year ago, could link up with Sheron and John Spencer. That would be a trio worth the close attention of any defence.

Sheffield United could pay a lengthy penalty for not getting through a mundane play-off final. One victory at Wembley would have been far better than what is likely to be a much tougher route through this season's campaign. In spite of losing their manager, Howard Kendall, to Everton, they still have enough useful players to get them back among the challengers, but the same could be said of Wolves last season. Squandering scoring chances cost them automatic promotion.

With an impressive infrastructure, Wolves are still searching for a consistent, winning team. They, too, will be regretting last season's setback in the play-offs. Narrow failure to beat the eventually promoted Palace was all the harder to take since their record was the best of all four involved. The opportunity to make amends is going to be difficult, especially if, in spite of heavy investment in their superb stadium, they continue to concede home advantage.

As for surprise promotion candidates, the performance of Crewe Alexandra against Brentford in the play-offs was impressive (thankfully since the play-offs were generally poor). In spite of selling the inspirational Danny Murphy, Dario Gradi has his usual squad of fine youngsters (average age at Wembley, 23). Similarly, Portsmouth have a youthful team with the confidence of solid work last season. The problem is keeping their young talents. Only last week, for "business reasons", they sold their successful 22-year-old striker Lee Bradbury to Manchester City for pounds 3.5m.

Although the First Division now has an impressive number of famous clubs, at least the more modest occupants have the incentive of the example shown by Barnsley last season. The Premiership is not yet a cartel but anyone seeking membership ought not to wait too long.

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