Football: Leicester to meet expectations - First Division

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The Independent Online
The change in Derby's fortunes, from penury to great wealth, has been almost Dickensian, like that of Pip in Great Expectations. But they face fierce competition from the other clubs who missed out on the Premier League, as well as among some who narrowly avoided relegation, and the promotion tussle promises to be a tale of several cities.

Leicester, the beaten play-off finalists, for one. Having made light of the loss of one forward, Paul Kitson, Brian Little has compensated for Tommy Wright's move to Middlesbrough by buying David Lowe from Ipswich for pounds 250,000, less than half the Wright price.

Lowe is out for two months through injury, but Leicester promptly paid pounds 50,000 for Leeds's Bobby Davison, who renews last year's prolific loan partnership from Derby with Ian Ormondroyd. After three consecutive promotion campaigns (the first two with Darlington), Little expectations should be fulfilled next May.

Derby will find, as did Blackburn, that the prospect of stuffing the big spenders inspires the most mediocre opposition. Arthur Cox has a squad replete with potential - Mark Pembridge, even at pounds 1.2m, may prove the snip of the summer - and the addition of a leader and ball-winner would make their case irresistible.

Portsmouth came within a crossbar's width of the FA Cup final, though manager Jim Smith has since lost Darren Anderton's youthful spontaneity and John Beresford's versatility. A strong squad nonetheless, including the former Spurs' player, Paul Walsh, and a good bet for a play-off place.

Sunderland did make it to Wembley, yet found League consistency elusive. Terry Butcher will bring know-how, if not mobility, but the Wearside legions may be disappointed that the club representing the new city still acts like a town team in the transfer market.

They have probably cast the odd envious glance towards Newcastle. Newcomers include the former Roker duo, Paul Bracewell and Barry Venison, who will form a formidable full-back pairing with Beresford. If the board continues to back Kevin Keegan with cash, Gazza's boys should be thereabouts. But that is a major 'if'.

Of the relegated trio, West Ham look better equipped than Luton or Notts County, especially if they are armed with a hefty fee for Stuart Slater. Morale took a battering last season, much of it self-inflicted by the wretched bond scheme, and it could take another year.

The defections from Cambridge's long-ball brigade of Steve Claridge ('A player shouted 'to feet' in training and was punished by being made to do 40 press-ups') and Colin Bailie ('When you don't enjoy a single training session it's time to go') hinted at a revolt over style. Dion Dublin has also gone; will John Beck buy bigger or better players with the pounds 1m fee?

Their antithesis, Swindon, were among the leaders last autumn until Glenn Hoddle was hurt. The sweeper-manager's fitness may prove the difference between promotion or mere plaudits. Birmingham will also please purists, with their football if not a horrendous new kit. Bristol City, with Russell Osman patrolling the back and Andrew Cole from Arsenal reinforcing attack, did enough after Denis Smith's appointment to merit a flutter.

Steve Bull will carry on scoring, though possibly not in Wolverhampton Wanderers' colours unless they improve on an indifferent pre-season. Bull needs better support, but Wolves are having to rely on loan signings after spending the kind of sum Derby have invested in players on making Molineux a sporting citadel again rather than an architectural abomination.

PREDICTION

Promotion: Leicester City (champions), Derby County.

Play-offs: Portsmouth, Newcastle, Bristol City, West Ham.

Relegated: Southend, Grimsby, Wolverhampton Wanderers.

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