Football: Quinn shows the value of bargain buys: Judgement delayed on best signing of the season as Scotland hail a talent for the future

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The Independent Online
IF THE best signings are those that decide the biggest prizes, then this is another race that must remain in doubt until the dust finally settles on 9 May. Eric Cantona, Dean Saunders and Mark Robins: shooting stars vying for the championship and candidates for 'buy of the season' when nominations closed with yesterday's 5pm transfer deadline.

The French and Saunders goalscoring routine and the chirpiness of the Canaries' favourite red-breast have helped Manchester United, Aston Villa and Norwich City to play musical chairs on the roof of the Premier League since the turn of the year.

The managers, Ferguson, Atkinson and Walker, backed their judgement with serious money - around pounds 1m in the case of Cantona and Robins, pounds 2.3m for Saunders - when, respectively, Leeds, Manchester United and Liverpool decided they preferred alternative marksmen. All have been handsomely repaid. Then again, if Ferguson is so shrewd, how come he allowed Robins to leave for Norwich in the first place?

In an inflated market, bargains can still be found. Who has measured up more impressively to his new surroundings than the expansive yet inexpensive Mick Quinn? As the Coventry manager, Bobby Gould, has said: 'He's fat, he's round, he scores at every ground.' Well might he sing his praises. At pounds 250,000 from Newcastle, Quinn represents top quality with a capital Q as 13 goals in 21 games have demonstrated.

Chris Waddle and Mark Bright have done the business for Sheffield Wednesday and put them on the brink of two Cup finals. Dean Holdsworth, a rarity as a pounds 1m Wimbledon player checking in rather than out, has achieved his quota of goals.

Crystal Palace spent the same sum on Chris Armstrong from Millwall and believe they have the best young striker of seasons to come. Gary Megson, a free transfer, has played an important part in Norwich's new-found resistance.

The season began with Alan Shearer bursting through the ceiling at a record pounds 3.3m from Southampton. He brought the house down and the market followed suit. Yet few would dispute that he has been an outstanding success for Blackburn - before a serious knee injury curtailed his and their ambitions.

'Everyone thought it was a ridiculous fee at the time but not now,' the Luton manager, David Pleat, said. 'If you project yourself at the highest level, as Shearer has done, it can lead to a big-money move abroad, so Blackburn could end up with a profit.'

Southend's attempts this week to realise a rapid 1,000-plus percentage profit on Stan Collymore foundered when Brian Clough finally returned to the real world to decide that pounds 2m was too high for a centre-forward only four months out of Crystal Palace's reserves.

Collymore would be foremost in the class of signings whose contribution this season has been favourably unexpected. Another is Neil Ruddock, who has brought steel and authority to Tottenham's notorious soft centre in their defence.

Peter Shreeves, the assistant manager of Wales, signed him from Millwall's youth team in his first spell as manager at White Hart Lane, and Ruddock's first as a player there. ' pounds 50,000 was no risk because you could see how good a player he was even then,' Shreeves said. 'He has proved an outstanding buy, as Teddy Sheringham also has for Spurs.

'Dean Saunders has transformed Villa from a mid-table side, while Eric Cantona could only play for a handful of clubs, like Manchester United, whose fans are educated enough to tolerate his faults. He always looks to play the telling ball, which means he costs you a lot of possession, but he has brought out the best in Ryan Giggs and Mark Hughes.'

In the First Division, Kevin Keegan has shown to be as canny in his use of the cheque book as he was in boosting his own bank account as a player. Newcastle's closest challengers, West Ham, contrastingly strapped for cash, have received substantial dividends from Mark Robson (free) and Peter Butler (pounds 120,000), while Derby have shown the folly of investing millions on an assortment of players without a clear idea of a team pattern.

It has not been an outstanding year for new faces from abroad. Liverpool have caught a Scandinavian cold, with both Torben Piechnik and Stig Inge Bjornebye found wanting amid the frenzy of the English game, leaving Ipswich's Bulgarian, Boncho Genchev, to take star billing.

'The major disappointments of the season would be Robert Fleck at Chelsea, David Rocastle at Leeds and Paul Stewart,' Shreeves said.

'Last year Stewart was my best player at Spurs when we used him in front of the back four. For the most part Liverpool have played him everywhere except there and so far he has not shown his worth, although, like Rocastle, he is a quality player and can still make an impact.'

(Photograph omitted)

------------------------------------------------------------------------ Table: The Season's Big-Money Moves ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Pounds Terry Phelan (Wimbledon to Manchester City) 2.5m (August) Craig Short (Notts County to Derby County) 2.5m (September) Dean Saunders (Liverpool to Aston Villa) 2.3m (September) Robert Fleck (Norwich City to Chelsea) 2.1m (August) Teddy Sheringham (Nottingham Forest to Tottenham Hotspur) 2.1m (August) Martin Keown (Everton to Arsenal) 2m (February) Andrew Cole (Bristol City to Newcastle United) 1.75m (March) Kevin Gallacher (Coventry City to Blackburn Rovers) 1.5m* (March) Stuart Slater (West Ham United to Celtic) 1.5m (August) Eric Cantona (Leeds United to Man United) 1.2m (November) Chris Armstrong (Millwall to Crystal Palace) 1m (August) *Deal included Roy Wegerle moving from Blackburn to Coventry in part-exchange. -----------------------------------------------------------------