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Football: Third Division preview - Funds dry up at the bottom

WITH MOST clubs in England's top two divisions taking their transfer business to Europe and beyond rather than finding fresh talent in the lower levels of the Nationwide League, times are hard down in the basement.

Last summer the 24 Third Division clubs shared a transfer income of over pounds 4m. This year that sum has shrunk to less than pounds 1.4m. Barnet's shirt sponsorship, by Loaded magazine, seems inappropriate - Brighton's deal with Skint Records is far more apt.

In the post-Bosman football world, clubs with rich backers tend to be tipped for success. The bookies' favourites for the Third Division title are Darlington, who have an ambitious and wealthy new chairman in George Reynolds. His funds, plus the pounds 300,000 received from Aberdeen for the goalkeeper David Preece, has allowed his manager David Hodgson to offer tempting salaries. Lee Nogan, the former Welsh international striker, has arrived from Grimsby and has been joined by, among others, Neil Heaney from Manchester City and Neil Aspin from Port Vale.

Northampton and York, arguably unlucky to be relegated, may bounce back while, if their manager Barry Fry can hang on to some gifted young players, Peterborough could fulfil their potential at last.

An unexpected challenge, considering only three clubs finished below them in May, could come from Hull City. Aided by his vastly experienced assistant John McGovern, the Tigers' player-manager Warren Joyce performed a minor miracle in avoiding relegation last season. Good players such as Jason Harris from Preston and John Eyre from Scunthorpe have arrived in the summer.

In the lower half of the table, the three Devon teams may struggle as could Barnet, who are distracted by off-field problems. They must find a new home by this time next year. Hartlepool and Carlisle, 22nd and 23rd last term, look in worse shape, though.

Carlisle, who have had three managers during a shambolic summer, cannot always rely on last-minute winning goals from goalkeepers for salvation.

Predictions: Automatic promotion: Darlington, Peterborough, Northampton. Play-offs: Hull, Swansea, York, Brighton. Relegation: Carlisle.