Players hard to find for love or money

Steve Tongue finds Premier new boys struggling to attract talent
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The Independent Football

They shadowed each other at the top of the Nationwide League for most of last season and are due to meet again on the opening day of the new Premiership campaign. In the meantime, Charlton Athletic and Manchester City, who play at The Valley on 19 August, have been watching each other with interest as their respective managers struggle surprisingly hard to spend the millions of pounds necessary to bridge the ever-widening gap between the two grades.

They shadowed each other at the top of the Nationwide League for most of last season and are due to meet again on the opening day of the new Premiership campaign. In the meantime, Charlton Athletic and Manchester City, who play at The Valley on 19 August, have been watching each other with interest as their respective managers struggle surprisingly hard to spend the millions of pounds necessary to bridge the ever-widening gap between the two grades.

That can still be done. Early in the Nineties, Leeds, Blackburn, Newcastle and Nottingham Forest all finished in the top four in their first season after promotion; more recently, Leicester, Middlesbrough and Sunderland made the upper half of the table. Even the least affluent of those clubs still found, however, that substantial sums were required even to contemplate keeping up with the Fergies.

City's Joe Royle and Charlton's Alan Curbishley, although neither could be classed as naïve young rookies, have had to swallow hard once or twice on being quoted the sums demanded by clubs, players or - worst of all - agents.

"The level of fees for British players is very high," said Royle, while waiting by the telephone to hear whether his £6m offer for Aston Villa's defender Ugo Ehiogu was sufficiently large. (It wasn't.) "Agents' fees seem to be going up too. There's a few people earning a very good living on the fringe of our industry."

Royle refuses to be rushed and is happy enough to have secured the first man he seriously targeted, Alf-Inge Haaland of Leeds. He admitted an interest in Bolton's Icelandic striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, but once Chelsea did so as well, then - as Charlton also found out - it was no contest.

It may be significant that those two players, like Charlton's one significant signing so far, Gudjohnsen's former team-mate Claus Jensen, all hail from abroad; as The Independent revealed last week, 75 per cent of the money spent by Premiership clubs this close-season has gone on foreigners.

Royle believes he may have to go to Europe to complete the strengthening required of a team who were in the Second Division two years ago, and is now looking at setting up scouting representation there. As for Curbishley, two summers ago, while City prepared to meet the challenge of Macclesfield and Millwall, he was wondering how to go about beefing up a squad who suddenly found themselves in the Premier League. He spent around £1m each on a full-back (Chris Powell) and midfielder (Neil Redfearn), took a striker (Andy Hunt) for nothing on a Bosman free transfer and kept some money back for a war chest that eventually funded the acquisition of Martin Pringle andGraham Stuart when the goals ran dry. It was still not enough to maintain a place at English football's high table.

Even though Curbishley's transfer record overall is excellent - four of those five were still in the side that finished ahead of City to win the championship - and he has sums of money to spend (a minimum of £10m) that a few years ago he would not even have bothered dreaming about, it has proved frustratingly difficult to capture the desired reinforcements this time.

Gudjohnsen preferred a bigger club already qualified for Europe, another Bolton man, the defender Mark Fish, could not agree terms, and Don Hutchison opted for a return to his native North-east with Sunderland. So there was a palpable air of relief at Charlton's well-appointed training ground last Thursday, when the club's pre-season media open day coincided with the announcement that Jensen had been signed for a fee almost quadrupling the previous club record, paid for Redfearn.

"I've been pitching high," the manager said in explanation of his comparative lack of success. "We've had stiff competition, like everybody's had, and what's happened since the last television deal has made it even harder. Joe has bid £6m for a player, George Burley [of Ipswich, the other promoted club] bid £4m for Jensen, and we'll all break our club record if we can. I've told Claus I might even break it again soon, and I hope I can follow it up with a couple more signings."

The key points in the negotiations will again be threefold, as Richard Murray, the chairman of Charlton's holding company, explained: "You've got to agree the fee, then the players' package, and then they've got to want to come to you.

"They come and look round and occasionally they say they want to play in front of 45,000 every week; that's something we're having to come to terms with. We've spoken to so many agents, and you are shocked by some of the demands, but that shows the level we're operating at now.

"The other important thing with a player like Claus is that he's only 23, and when you buy players of his age it's not what I call dead money: a year or two before the end of his contract he'll still be in his prime. We said we'd get three or four players; he's the first, and at least three will be for substantial fees."

The supporters of both clubs are not stinting in making their contribution: Charlton quickly sold out of season tickets and City have a waiting list of 5,000. When they come together again next month, the line-ups will make interesting reading and will reflect how successful a summer the two managers have had.

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