Barnsley can lean on Bassett's experience

Click to follow

When Craig Hignett's sixth-minute shot rattled the Ipswich crossbar and crossed the line in May's First Division play-off final, it seemed that his Barnsley side were destined for a return to the Premiership. Although Ipswich prevailed 4-2 and Hignett has since moved to Blackburn, there are still reasons to believe that Dave Bassett could take the Tykes up at the second attempt.

When Craig Hignett's sixth-minute shot rattled the Ipswich crossbar and crossed the line in May's First Division play-off final, it seemed that his Barnsley side were destined for a return to the Premiership. Although Ipswich prevailed 4-2 and Hignett has since moved to Blackburn, there are still reasons to believe that Dave Bassett could take the Tykes up at the second attempt.

"All the boys have settled in well," Bassett said this week of his summer acquisitions, who include Mitch Ward (who played under Bassett at Sheffield United) and Carl Regan from Everton, and the strikers, Lee Jones and the youngster Alex Neil, who have moved from Tranmere and Airdrie respectively. They join a tight-knit, seasoned squad that includes several players, such as Neil Shipperley, who have worked under Bassett elsewhere.

"Carl's got on with the job at right-back [replacing Nicky Eaden, who has gone to Birmingham] and he can be a good asset," said Bassett. "Mitch knows what it's all about and has fitted in well. Lee Jones [who scored twice on his debut, a friendly against Bristol Rovers] is pushing the front two very hard, his fitness is good and he's working hard. Alex has picked up a blister which means he's struggling a bit." Neil will miss three matches anyway, due to a carried-over suspension.

If any manager knows about the difficulties of taking a club to the top division, it is Bassett, who did it with Wimbledon (1986), Sheffield United (1990 and 1992) and Nottingham Forest (1998). As long as his side maintain their strike rate - they scored 88 times last season - while addressing the tendency to be porous in defence (they conceded 67 goals), they should be there or thereabouts.

At least Bassett should have the staunch support of his chairman, John Dennis, a man who understands football and will give his manager the time it takes to build a side capable of elevation. The same cannot be said with confidence of Jean Tigana at Fulham.

"If a manager delivers he will stay at Fulham forever. If he doesn't he will leave the club," Mohamed Al Fayed, the Cottagers' chairman, said when he appointed the Frenchman earlier this year.

"Jean Tigana has promised me we will win promotion next season," Al Fayed added. "My ambition is for Tigana to win the Premiership in two years' time." Lofty expectations indeed, but ones that have a remote chance of being met if money is made available at the right times.

A handful of clubs with recent Premiership experience must also be considered as serious prospects for promotion, not least Blackburn. Whether Graeme Souness will be able to inspire the likes of Hignett to perform is unproven as yet, however, as are the potential effects of a change in the power base at Ewood Park should Jack Walker's health problems remove him from the picture.

Sheffield Wednesday and Wimbledon will both be hoping for swift returns to the Premiership, but are likely to find their depleted squads unable to cope. Watford, on the other hand, were competing at this level last year and Graham Taylor knows exactly what he is up against.

Among a group of clubs likely to be contending for play-off places are last season's play-off semi-final losers, Birmingham and Bolton. It is only a matter of time, surely, before Trevor Francis emulates Ipswich's George Burley and actually manages to breach the gap to the top. Sam Allardyce, at Bolton, might have a tougher time, depending on his club's finances. The top-flight aspirants at Norwich, Huddersfield and Wolves might be similarly stifled by financial constraints.

In this most competitive of divisions, it is never wise to discount anyone, although Alan Smith will probably be hard pushed to turn around Crystal Palace's fortunes in his first season back and Nottingham Forest's David Platt has shown few signs that he is really ready for management at this level.

Three to go up

Barnsley The seven points by which Dave Bassett's side missed automatic promotion last season misrepresented the talent of an experienced side who can play attractive football and score goals. A play-off final place can be replicated at least and, with firmer resolve in the run-in, be bettered.

Fulham Jean Tigana's side will feel the loss of striker Geoff Horsfield and must hope Louis Saha is as prolific. He will need to maintain a momentum that wavered as last season progressed. John Collins should prove to be an influential newcomer. If not, there's always Mohamed Al Fayed's wallet.

Watford The Hornets paid a club-record fee to sign Tottenham's Danish midfielder Allan Nielsen. They also signed Spurs goalkeeper Espen Baardsen. When manager Graham Taylor said: "It sends a message to the dressing-room and the fans that we are serious about returning to the top division", he meant it.

Three to go down

Gillingham A staff largely intact after the jubilation of May's play-off final win has been potentially holed below the waterline by the departure of manager Peter Taylor, who coaxed the best from scant resources. Andy Hessenthaler, player-manager and fans' hero, has it all to do to survive.

Grimsby Town Last season's 20th place would probably be welcomed at Blundell Park, not least now that striker Lee Ashcroft has gone to Wigan. A new stadium (and thus revenue) is tantalisingly on the horizon, but as problems keep stalling it so the chances of reinforcing the present squad decrease.

West Bromwich A win on the last day of the season in May against champions Charlton saved West Brom, but the decline in the previous five months had told its own story. Striker Lee Hughes will surely depart. If newcomer Jason Roberts falters, the Baggies could be in serious trouble.

Comments