Until a player has performed in the Premiership, there will always be a question mark about his ability to do so, in his own head and those of potential managers. Some, like Dean Ashton, or Kevin Doyle, immediately take to it, others, like Grzegorz Rasiak, or Jon Stead find the step up more difficult. The question that men like Alan Pardew and Alan Curbishley will be pondering, as they look at signing a Championship player in this transfer window, is how will their target cope? One thing is for sure, they will look into everything about them.
I remember when Kevin Keegan signed Robert Lee at Newcastle he did so purely because I told him Rob was a good player and I'd heard he was available. Kevin had been in Marbella for seven years and didn't know many players. Those days have gone. Someone like Curbishley will look at character and everything. They need to. Some qualities - pace, touch, strength, balance - can be assessed from a distance. They are all important but a player is not only moving into a stronger division, he is stepping into a stronger dressing room. You have to be able to handle that. I went from Newcastle to a Chelsea team full of powerful characters like Dennis Wise and Nigel Spackman. A lot of stick flies around.
The pressure is higher and team-mates demand more of you. If you give the ball away in training you will get away with it in the Championship, at a good Premiership club you will get a rollocking, not from the coaches, but from other players. People demand high standards of each other, the players almost run it themselves with the manager able to sit back. Some players crumble. I remember Danny Shittu when he was a teenager coming through at Charlton. He wasn't a big character, his passing wasn't the best, and he crumbled under the pressure. He went into his shell. But he dropped down a couple of levels to QPR and grew in himself. He's now back in the Premiership with Watford.
The fee can also be a problem. When I was at Chelsea we spent a lot of money on Robert Fleck. He was a lovely lad, but the price tag weighed around his neck, he couldn't get going, the crowd got on to him. He just couldn't handle it.
Then there's the dressing-room banter. I bought a lovely pair of loafers into training one day at Chelsea. I thought they looked very nice. Wisey filled them up with biscuits, orange juice, tea, everything. They were ruined. It looks juvenile from the outside but it is all about testing people out: Can you take it? If you can, you won't wilt out there on the pitch in front of 40,000 people, with the press, public and TV judging your every move. It builds a strength and togetherness which all top teams have.
The need for players to be able to survive this environment may be a reason for the trend back towards signing players from the domestic leagues, rather than looking abroad where the finished product often comes cheaper. This is especially the case now, in mid-season, when a team need new signings to settle quickly to turn around a relegation battle, or to make a push for Europe. In the January window, a manager often wants someone who knows the English game, who does not need to learn the language, or adapt to a culture.
Of course, he also has to be a good player. He is stepping up into a league where players think and move quicker and his game has to be up to it. Pace is more important than ever. I remember after I dropped out of the top flight to rejoin QPR, I was away from the Premiership for five years. I went back in, on loan to Charlton, and I could tell it had gone up another level in strength and pace. I remember walking out at Highbury and looking at the size of the Arsenal players, and then experiencing the speed of their game.
It has gone up another gear since then, but there will be Championship players, like David Nugent and Gareth Bale, who have topped this year's survey, who will be able to handle it, just as Phil Jagielka, last year's winner, has. I saw Bale play against Brazil and he thundered into a tackle in the first minute. He's 17, but he was not overawed at all. That strength of character, allied to natural ability, is what managers look for.
Gavin Peacock appears regularly for the BBC on Match of the Day and Football Focus.Reuse content