In two days the transfer window will be flung open and while most Premiership managers have been plunging into personal energy debt, burning gallons of aviation fuel as they scout Europe and beyond for new recruits, others have been relying on more traditional methods. Donning cloth cap and muffler they have scanned the ranks of the Football League.
Although the headline fees may scare clubs more used to free transfers from abroad there remain, in real terms, bargains to be had at this level. While the likes of Phil Jagielka may not have 30 international caps and Champions' League experience behind him, unlike many foreign recruits, he will settle quickly and not demand astronomical, dressing-room-destabilising, wages.
Jagielka is used as the example because, by common consent, he is the best player in the English game operating outside the top flight. That was the view of a panel of experts consulted by The Independent. They included current and former managers, pundits and journalists.
The serving managers, necessarily, were granted anonymity. As one said: "I don't want to alert anyone as to who I might buy". An exception was Joe Royle, of Ipswich, who, after making two cash signings in three years at the helm, knew no one anticipated him indulging in a transfer spree.
One caveat. This is not necessarily a list of the 20 best players outside the Premiership right now, rather the 20 with the greatest potential - it is more a guide for shoppers. Players over 30 have been disqualified, thus ruling out some of the Championship's best, such as David Unsworth, Inigo Idiakez and the reborn Ade Akinbiyi. Players on loan from the Premiership were also barred, otherwise Wolves' Tom Huddlestone (Tottenham), Cardiff's Jason Koumas (West Bromwich) and Stoke's Paul Gallagher (Blackburn) might well have figured.
There was common agreement on the first four names, but after that opinions varied enormously. Among the top 20 are four from Reading, which is not surprising given they lead the Championship by nine points, and four from sixth-placed Wolves, which is less expected.
Including the "top 10 oldies", and 20 "bubbling under" brings a more accurate reflection of the table. Reading have eight players followed by Sheffield United's six, and a quartet apiece from Palace, Wolves, Southampton and Leeds.
Only two foreign players make the top 20: Reading's American Bobby Convey and Wolves' South Korean Ki-Hyeon Seol. Of the 50 listed, six are foreign. The rest, noted one manager, are players who would have been in the top flight a decade ago, before it went multinational.
It remains such and most of these players will be overlooked. But for every Richard Chaplow, who has struggled to make an impact at West Brom since moving from Burnley last January, there is a Michael Dawson - Spurs' successful transfer window signing from Nottingham Forest - ready and waiting to seize their shot at glory.
1: Phil Jagielka (Sheffield United)
Nationality English. Age 23. Position Midfield, defence
Potential buyers? Half the Premiership
Everyone agrees Phil Jagielka will be playing in the Premiership next season, the only question is: where? In an ideal world it will be in central midfield for newly promoted Sheffield United. It might, though, be right-back for Everton, or central defence for Manchester City. Such is the Under-21 international's quality and versatility. And he is beginning to add goals.
The Blades turned down £4m from Wigan in the summer but manager Neil Warnock accepts that, if they fail to go up, they cannot stand in Jagielka's way any longer. "I asked him to give me, personally, one more year," said Warnock. "I brought him through from a young lad. I told him, 'If we don't go up I'll help you get away'. He's an all-rounder, he'd play for England at tiddlywinks. He's even our stand-in goalkeeper. He's a lovely lad from a nice family. It's great when players like that do well. He's one who, when I finish, I'll watch."
Manchester-born Jagielka is United's second-longest serving player. He was 17 when Warnock gave him his debut, as a substitute on the last day of the 1999-2000 season. The next year he became a regular.
"I think central midfield is his best position, he's more involved there," said Warnock, "but even scouts who look at him can't agree on his best position. When I brought him in he lacked pace but he's now one of the quickest. I think he'd have been a good replacement for Roy Keane but top clubs look abroad these days."`
2: Andrew Johnson (Crystal Palace)
Nationality English. Age 24. Position Striker.
Buyers? Tottenham, Charlton, Birmingham
It is a surprise that Johnson is playing in the Championship at all. Last season he scored 21 Premiership goals and won international recognition. So, with the World Cup approaching, a move seemed certain when Palace were relegated, probably to Tottenham. But Crystal Palace stood firm for at least £10m. In the event, Johnson signed a lucrative new contract as both parties gambled on his scoring the goals to get Palace back up. Injury, however, intervened. Johnson is fit and scoring again, but must do so at a phenomenal rate or Palace will need the play-offs to go up, and Johnson will be watching the World Cup on TV.
3: Steve Sidwell (Reading)
Nationality English. Age 24. Position Midfielder.
Buyers? Charlton, Fulham, Arsenal
The former Arsenal trainee was voted best player in the division last season and, while not quite as dominating this, has still been a key figure in Reading's rise to the Championship pinnacle. Intelligent and industrious, he has missed few fixtures since signing for Reading nearly three years ago. Only doubt about this good passer and solid tackler is whether he has the physical presence. But he is a keen learner.
4: Theo Walcott (Southampton)
Nationality English. Age 16. Position Striker.
Buyers? Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool
English football's hottest teenage property. He's lightning quick, skilful and fearless. Arsenal and Spurs lead the pack of clubs drooling over every dribble. The star of Saints' FA Youth Cup runners-up, he was given his debut on the season's opening day and quickly became a regular. The only caveats are his youth, lightweight stature and finishing.
5: Cameron Jerome (Cardiff City)
Nationality English. Age 19. Position Striker.
Buyers? Everton, Portsmouth
Only in his second season but already turning heads. His 11 goals this season have spearheaded Cardiff's rise and won a place in the England Under-21 squad. Quick, powerful and skilful. There are doubts about his link-up play but that should develop. Those clubs who rejected him - including home-town club Huddersfield and Middlesbrough - may regret it.
6: Kevin Doyle (Reading)
Nationality Irish. Age 22. Position Striker.
Buyers? Aston Villa, Everton, Birmingham
Probably the Championship discovery of the season. A £70,000 signing from Cork City, he is the form striker with six in the last nine games. Said an envious Joe Royle: "He's mobile, quick, very fit and wants to score. To get a front-line striker for £70,000..."
7: Dean Ashton (Norwich City)
Nationality English. Age 22. Position Striker.
Buyers? Wigan, Manchester City, Everton
One of the few successes of Norwich's dismal season with 11 goals including his recent hat-trick against Southampton. Big, powerful, with a readiness to shoot. He may regret staying at Carrow Road but Ashton was brought up the right way, at Dario Gradi's Crewe, and has time, and ability on his side.
8: Kenny Miller (Wolves)
Nationality Scottish. Age 26. Position Striker.
Buyers? Everton, Birmingham, Rangers
Was 26 last week and his recent goal against Italy suggests he is peaking. Only hit two in the Premiership, but they were against Manchester United and Liverpool. A contract dispute means he may move on next month.
9: Joleon Lescott (Wolves)
Nationality English. Age 23. Position Central defence.
Buyers? Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Fulham
Missed Wolves' Premiership season with knee injuries but has returned strongly. Quick, powerful and elegant, he captained Wolves at 22, has Under-21 recognition, and is club player of the year.
10: Danny Webber (Sheffield Utd)
Nationality English. Age 24. Position Striker
Buyers? Everton, Sunderland, Charlton
Four years at Old Trafford without a League appearance but seems set to return with the Blades. Mobile and sharp, quick and inventive, he found his feet at Watford before a March move to Bramall Lane.
11: Lee Trundle (Swansea City)
Nationality English. Age 29. Position Striker.
Buyers? Birmingham, Charlton, Everton,
League One's most coveted player. A late developer who added discipline to skill after becoming a father. Now a cult hero at Swansea having followed 22 goals last season with 17 this. His weight may prove a problem but not his ability.
12: Ashley Young (Watford)
Nationality English. Age 20. Position Striker.
Buyers? Tottenham, Charlton, Liverpool
Originally a wide player, because of his pace and mobility, he has drifted inside this season to good effect, scoring 10 goals. Two-footed, imaginative and hard-working. His maturity is demonstrated by his being entrusted with set pieces.
13: Bobby Convey (Reading)
Nationality American. Age 22. Position Winger.
Buyers? Liverpool, Portsmouth
A peripheral figure last season as he struggled after moving from Philadelphia but has finally lived up to his reputation this campaign. Narrowly edges Leeds' Eddie Lewis as the best winger though his more experienced compatriot has the better all-round game.
14: Nigel Quashie (Southampton)
Nationality Scottish. Age 27. Position Midfielder.
Buyers? Rangers, Charlton, Portsmouth
A promising youngster, who won Under-21 and B caps for England, he lost his way after leaving QPR for Forest but has blossomed since becoming a Scottish international - through parentage - and coming under the wing of Harry Redknapp at Fratton Park and St Mary's. With Harry trading places again, Quashie is likely to leave Saints.
15: Mark Kennedy (Wolves)
Nationality Irish. Age 29. Position Midfield.
Buyers? Sunderland, Bolton, Portsmouth
He was the game's most expensive teenager when he signed for Liverpool, from Millwall, in 1995 but a certain waywardness meant he never fulfilled potential. Now, though, he has, to quote Royle, "reinvented himself". No longer a winger, this increasingly influential midfielder could yet make a Premiership return.
16: Ki-Hyeon Seol (Wolves)
Nationality South Korean. Age 26. Position Midfield/striker.
Buyers? Everton, West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle
Versatile, increasingly influential, and he would sell a few shirts. Player s have been bought for less. Rangy with good passing skills, he took time to settle but could yet join compatriots Lee Young-Pyo and Park Ji-Sung in the élite. Did national service in summer.
17: Matty Fryatt (Walsall)
Nationality English. Age 19. Position Striker.
Buyers? Birmingham City, Wolves, Preston
Fifteen goals in his debut season, 14 so far this, and still a teenager. Slender but lithe and with an eye for goal, the England youth international is unlikely to remain at the Saddlers for long.
18: Nicky Shorey (Reading)
Nationality English. Age 24. Position Left-back.
Buyers? Arsenal, Charlton, Newcastle
Attacking full-backs are in vogue and, if Ashley Cole does indeed leave for Real Madrid, Arsène Wenger could do worse than look to Berkshire. Athletic, skilful and consistent, the former Leyton Orient defender is also a dead-ball artist, from corners and free-kicks.
19: Boaz Myhill (Hull City)
Nationality English. Age 23. Position Goalkeeper.
Buyers? Charlton, Wigan, Arsenal
Big, commanding keeper who likes to dominate the area, which can lead to mistakes. They should be reduced with age. US-born but represented England at junior levels. Previously at Aston Villa. Real name - Glyn. Brave.
20: Owen Garvan (Ipswich Town)
Nationality Irish. Age 17. Position Midfielder.
Buyers? Tottenham, West Ham, Sunderland
There is a team of ex-Ipswich players in the Premiership and Garvan could be next. Made his debut this season and his composure soon impressed. A regular until injury struck, the scouts are awaiting his return. Pace the only doubt.
Twenty more bubbling under
Robert Green (Norwich City) Paddy Kenny (Sheffield Utd) Lewis Price (Ipswich Town)
Kevin Foley (Luton Town) Emmerson Boyce (C Palace) Dan Harding (Leeds United)
Fitz Hall (Crystal Palace) Chris Morgan (Sheffield Utd) Sam Sodje (Brentford)
Jamie Harper (Reading) Matt Oakley (Southampton) Ben Watson (Crystal Palace)
David Nugent (Preston) Dave Kitson (Reading) Steve Kabba (Sheffield United) David Healy (Leeds United) Rob Hulse (Leeds United) Nathan Tyson (Wycombe, on loan to Nottingham Forest) Marlon King (Nottingham Forest, on loan to Watford) Darren Huckerby (Norwich City)
Top 10 Over-30s (Listed alphabetically)
Ade Akinbiyi (Burnley) 31
Graham Alexander (Preston) 34
Marcus Hahnemann (Reading) 33
Inigo Idiakez (Derby) 32
Eddie Lewis (Leeds United) 31
Glen Little (Reading) 30
Chris Lucketti (Preston) 34
Jim Magilton (Ipswich) 36
Antii Niemi (Southampton) 33
David Unsworth (Sheff Utd) 32Reuse content