Premiership fall guys aiming for swift return

Leicester City, Derby County and Ipswich Town look for an instant return as they begin life outside elite after relegation
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The Independent Football

To quote a cliché, there is never a good time to be relegated but there can never have been a worse one than May 2002. Leicester City, Derby County and Ipswich Town left perhaps Europe's wealthiest league for a division where never has so much money been owed by so many to so few banks.

To quote a cliché, there is never a good time to be relegated but there can never have been a worse one than May 2002. Leicester City, Derby County and Ipswich Town left perhaps Europe's wealthiest league for a division where never has so much money been owed by so many to so few banks.

The ITV Digital deal at least gave the First Division a feeling that financially it was in sight of the Premiership and its collapse and the subsequent failure of its court case against Carlton and Granada exposed its real status all too readily. Where there was once £2m a year, each club will have to make do with £500,000 which would have covered Dennis Wise's wages until Christmas had Leicester not decided to sack the thuggish midfielder, who proved one of Peter Taylor's many bad buys.

Like Sunderland in 1997, Leicester had to swallow the discomfort of opening a new stadium in the aftermath of relegation, taking their place in a Midlands football landscape which is littered with fallen clubs. Estimate the combined debts of Nottingham Forest, Leicester, Derby, and Coventry and you begin to gain some understanding of the apparent hopelessness of the attempts to claw themselves back.

The Walkers Stadium, opened by the crisp company's chief advertising weapon Gary Lineker with some stiff criticism of Taylor's management, will nevertheless be buzzing for this afternoon's visit of Watford, a club who have just sold their ground rather than paid £35m to build a new one. Just as Sunderland, Bolton and Middlesbrough discovered, a state-of-the art stadium can take supporters' minds off the reality of relegation with razzmatazz, decent bars and the ability to see a game without having to stare around a pillar but, once the newness wears off, there has to be a resurgence on the pitch.

Since the Premiership was formed, 31 clubs have been relegated of which a quarter have immediately returned to the top-flight but, of the three, Leicester look the least likely to extend those statistics. Few clubs who finish hopelessly adrift at the bottom (think Bradford 2001, Watford 2000, and Nottingham Forest in 1999) recover quickly, if at all.

The culture of defeat cannot easily be washed away. Bolton and Nottingham Forest both finished bottom of the Premiership in 1996 and 1997 and then won the First Division title but the pay-off was they were immediately relegated again.

Naturally, Ipswich, who finished third bottom last season are best equipped to cope. Their chairman, David Sheepshanks, is struggling with a £15m hole in the club's finances which the sale of Titus Bramble to Newcastle will only paper over. However, since Ipswich were playing in the First Division only two years ago, the squad and manager, George Burley, knows what to expect. Burley will not change Ipswich's style of football and he has most assuredly not repeated his mistake of last season when too much money was frittered away on foreign imports. Ipswich, who have made the Uefa Cup again this season via the Fair Play League, are favourites for the swiftest of returns and with good reason.

Burley's counterpart at Leicester, Micky Adams, has been preparing for reduced circumstances since early this year and admits that his greatest battle will be psychological. "What is hard with this group of players is that they have been together for 18 months and seen 18 months of defeat," he said. "We have to get that winning mentality back.

"It is a real test. I will back my coaching ability but these guys are used to losing. My hardest job is not on the training-ground but what I can put into their heads." Adams, like Burley and John Gregory at Derby has retained the bulk of his squad, mainly because so few clubs anywhere can afford to buy. Robbie Savage and Gary Rowett have gone but Ian Walker, Frank Sinclair, Matt Elliott and, most surprisingly of all, Muzzy Izzet, remain but the scale of Leicester's debt means there has been nothing available to refresh a squad which has been used to losing for too long.

Adams' chairman, Martin George, said: "I feel frustrated there is no money for new signings. In all my years following the club as a fan and director, that is unheard of. I feel sorry for Micky that he should have to work under these conditions."

Feeling sorry for himself is not something Gregory, is given to. The Derby manager, in a sweeping statement of intent, said: "I want to make this a top-10 Premiership club, it will take a lot of hard work but why can't we do it?"

Gregory uses Charlton as a role model. "They are an exceptionally-well run club. They have spent wisely and rebuilt their ground. They were relegated (in 1999), bounced back and stayed in the Premiership and have endured and managed financial crises."

Derby's own financial crisis is daunting enough. The club owe some £30m and have an annual wage bill of £17m. After the final Premiership match of the season at Sunderland, Gregory estimated he would have to sell at least one player, although the board's insistence on a £6m fee for goalkeeper Mart Poom meant Everton turned to Richard Wright instead. Malcolm Christie is still on board and so, incredibly, given their enormous wages are Fabrizio Ravanelli and Georgi Kinkladze. Gregory has thus far been unable to get rid of players he claimed were not committed to Derby and bring in his own men. His four transfer targets, including Robbie Mustoe, who was released by Middlesbrough in the summer, have also failed to sign.

The Derby chairman, Lionel Pickering, has promised to unveil a refinancing package by the end of the month, although some in the Midlands wonder why he has turned down an offer of £10m worth of investment by two former directors.

Nevertheless, one surprising feature is that when Reading arrive at Pride Park this afternoon it should represent Derby's highest opening-day crowd since August 1973, when 31,847 watched them beat Chelsea. Optimism springs eternal in August and, incidentally, Derby finished that season third, one above Ipswich, and a repeat of that would do very nicely.

Second Division

With 11 teams that have tasted top-flight league football, the Second Division still nurtures plenty of ambition, nowhere more so than at Ninian Park, writes Tim Rich.

The behaviour of Cardiff City's chairman and their supporters following their epic defeat of Leeds in a match, which marked the beginning of the end of David O'Leary's regime, cost the club a lot of goodwill. On the pitch, they failed to capitalise on their achievement until the dismissal of Alan Cork and the arrival of Lennie Lawrence, but the manner in which Cardiff steamrollered into the play-offs last season suggests Lawrence may give his club's unforgiving owner, Sam Hammam, the long-term success he yearns for.

Joe Kinnear, whose relationship with Hammam was central to Wimbledon's achievements in the Premiership, leads another revivalist club in Luton Town. They look better bets than Plymouth Argyle, who won the Third Division last season, to make a second successive leap forward.

Of the other clubs which were once part of England's élite, Bristol City, Barnsley and Blackpool have realistic chances of the play-offs. At Huddersfield Town much depends on whether manager Mick Wadsworth can gel the squad's undoubted talents into place, while Queen's Park Rangers have released too many players in the summer to be contenders. As for Notts County, Oldham Athletic and Northampton Town, mid-table will do.

Those unlikely to be safe until the season is done include Colchester United and Chesterfield and two clubs who have lost fine managers – Brentford (Steve Coppell) and Cheltenham Town (Steve Cotterill).

Wigan Athletic have never graced even the second tier of English football but they should never have a better chance to do so. Very, very few of their rivals could afford to pay £1.2m for a forward as Paul Jewell did for Nathan Ellington. The man who steered Bradford City to survival in the Premiership has rebuilt the team and, with a stadium worthy of higher things, the First Division may be within reach.

Third Division

It says something for the parlous state of the Third Division that more than 160 players have left their clubs this summer. Thirteen have gone from Hull City while an entire squad seems to have vanished from Carlisle United's books, writes Tim Rich.

The two clubs, however, face very different prospects. Hull, who will finally abandon Boothferry Park, where 55,000 once watched Manchester United play, have in Jan Molby a manager with good credentials in the division. He also has the resources to mount a genuine championship push.

Molby's clear-out cannot be compared to the happenings at Brunton Park. After finding the Irishman Roddy Collins, the first manager in an age not to have taken the club to the brink of relegation, Carlisle dispensed with his services and those of several players. But, following a takeover by the Irish businessman John Courtenay, Collins was back on board.

Boston United, the newcomers from the Conference, begin the season minus four points and with a £100,000 fine after being found guilty of financial irregularities, but they should be tough enough to survive. Of the clubs coming the other way, Wrexham look the best-equipped to return to the Second Division.

Potentially, no club has more money than Darlington, under their millionaire owner George Reynolds, although his eccentric management style, with his wife lecturing the players on their own inadequacies, has undermined everything. At Christmas, Darlington will abandon Feethams for a 25,000-capacity stadium, where you should be able to have a stand to yourself.

It is, however, Darlington's neighbours, Hartlepool, who stand a far better chance of promotion. Having fallen at the play-off stages for three consecutive seasons, Hartlepool have a sound, hardened squad and in Chris Turner an excellent manager. Their stiffest challenges will come from Rushden, if Brian Talbot's side can swallow their defeat in the play-off final to Cheltenham.