Transfer battle rages over Huckerby

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The Independent Football

Leading contenders for automatic promotion to the Premiership will mark the last First Division programme before Christmas with a significant upping of the stakes as the season enters a critical period.

The leaders, West Bromwich Albion, and second-placed Norwich both unveil strikers of Premiership pedigree. Albion give the former Birmingham forward Geoff Horsfield his debut at Coventry; Norwich parade Matthias Svensson, their capture from Charlton Athletic, at Ipswich.

Intriguingly, the two clubs are rivals for the signature of Darren Huckerby. Both have had bids of £750,000 accepted by Manchester City, with Norwich apparently favourites after holding talks with the striker yesterday.

Norwich's move represents an about-turn by the Norfolk club, where Huckerby completed a loan period with his fifth goal in nine matches last weekend. The manager, Nigel Worthington, said that the overall cost of any permanent deal would be too much. However, once they heard about Albion's interest, Norwich tabled their own offer.

Yesterday, the Manchester City manager, Kevin Keegan, indicated that Norwich would be the striker's destination. "Darren needs to play football," he said. "That's why I loaned him out to Norwich and he had a terrific time there."

Ironically, Wigan had hoped to finance a move for Huckerby with the proceeds of the sale of Horsfield to Albion, who agreed to pay £1m to bring the 30-year-old back to the Midlands. Now it appears they will have to look elsewhere.

Should Huckerby, who was said to be earning £20,000-a-week at Manchester City, agree terms with Norwich, then Worthington's team could probably be counted as favourites for the title. So far an indifferent away record has let them down, making a stark contrast with their home form, which shows 10 wins from 12 games. However, with Huckerby, Svensson and another new signing, the ex-Crystal Palace striker Leon McKenzie, available, that imbalance may soon be corrected.

Svensson is likely to make his debut in tomorrow's derby at Ipswich. Horsfield gets his first start for Albion at Coventry where the West Brom manager, Gary Megson, will probably recognise the insensitivity of playing Lee Hughes and opt for the new man.

The loss of Horsfield is a disappointment to Wigan, who had hoped his partnership with Nathan Ellington would be the key to further advancement. But the striker was commuting daily from his home in the Midlands and both parties agreed the arrangement was not working.

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