Going up, staying up - the £7m itch

Sums will need to add up for Coppell and Warnock next season
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The Independent Online

Supporters arriving by train for last Tuesday's hugely enjoyable 1-1 draw between the Championship's leading teams, Sheffield United and Reading, could hardly have missed the large posters proclaiming £50million worth of rebuilding. Unfortunately for loyal Blades, it referred to an area round the railway station rather than their team.

But on a night when United matched the runaway train that is Steve Coppell's Reading, the notion of regeneration in the city might have prompted some thought - concern even - about exactly how much investment will be required if the next stop is indeed to be the Premiership.

The evidence from clubs taking that route in the past two seasons leads to a depressingly straightforward conclusion: those that spend stay up and those that try to survive on the cheap return whence they came.

Two years ago, Norwich City and Crystal Palace spent less than a £1m each in transfer fees during the summer, trotting out the old line about giving a chance to the lads who won promotion; West Bromwich Albion invested £6.2m, brought in three more players in the January transfer window and escaped relegation on the final day.

The recent public spat at Sunderland between Mick McCarthy and his chairman, Bob Murray, stemmed from McCarthy's words being interpreted as suggesting that the club's spending policy was designed with the likelihood of relegation in mind. Although Murray denied that, the outlay was still barely half of West Ham and Wigan's, and the difference in subsequent fortunes is clear.

As West Ham's manager, Alan Pardew, put it last week: "The one thing that is a bit of the benchmark for the teams that get promoted now is to look at what West Ham and Wigan spent, which is around £7m. There is no reason why the teams who get promoted cannot spend the same kind of money. We have obviously spent a bit more now because we are safe and have dipped into the future with the signing of Dean Ashton. I think Sunderland have spent about £3m and it doesn't always equate because wages distort that, but it is a rough guide."

Pardew has naturally taken a particular interest in the attempts by his former club Reading to follow in West Ham's footsteps. He believes: "Reading have the speed and the energy in the team to have a real impact in the Premiership." It is taken as a given that they will get there, despite a first defeat in 34 games at Luton on Friday night.

What is equally clear is that leaving loveable but tatty old Elm Park eight years ago for the Madejski Stadium, just off the M4 with its hotel, conference centre and rugby union tenants, has made them infinitely better equipped to compete at the higher level than they would have been in 1995, when a 2-0 lead was lost in the play-off final against Bolton.

Nigel Howe, Reading's chief executive, says: "The difference between Elm Park and the Madejski Stadium is really a revolution. John Madejski wanted to make sure the business had some sort of financial stability and we built a lot of non football-related facilities and income. Steve Coppell is a very, very steady man with a wealth of experience and although he doesn't want to talk about promotion until the job's done, his back-room team have already spent time searching for the right players. If you go back over the last few seasons you can see that the clubs that have survived, as far back as when Birmingham City came up, did invest well in players."

Norwich, Palace and Sunderland may all have felt that with increased wages and the possibility of immediate relegation they could not push the boat out, but these days every promoted club is virtually guaranteed £18m in broadcasting and merit money, as opposed to £500,000 in the Championship.

If it takes an act of faith to entrust about half of that to the manager, Pardew and Paul Jewell have justified their respective chairmen's backing and so, almost certainly, would Coppell, given how well he has built the team since taking over in October 2003.

In the meantime, Sheffield United, a public limited company, are going down the path of a share issue intended to raise £10.7m, of which about £7m will be set aside for "additional investment in players' wages and for working capital purposes".

Neil Warnock, who was tempted to make the leap to the Premiership with Portsmouth in November, will hope that much of that working capital comes his way.

Signing a crop of 30-somethings last month (including three new strikers) ought to help ensure that promotion is secured one way or another after 12 years below stairs. It is then that the club's ambition and resources will be tested. A smart new railway station would be no consolation for a return journey to the Football League.

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