The Nick Townsend column: Big four? Fourth from bottom is the better race

Hull and Stoke will find it mission impossible but Baggies have passing game to avoid the drop – which is bad news for Bolton
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The Independent Online

So, "Let The Heartaches Begin", as Long John Baldry crooned back in the Sixties. TheNo 1 single was all about lamenting a lost love, but those of us with a more cruel sense of humour may contend it could be an appropriate anthem for Hull City, Stoke City or West Bromwich Albion, particularly as it contained the line: "I can't help it. I can't win".

Derby County narrowly avoided such ignominy, with one victory from 38 games last season. To place Hull's season in perspective, the bookmakers make them even less likely to survive than they did the Rams 12 months ago.

It was Kevin Keegan who opined that the Premier League "is in danger of becoming one of the most boring but great leagues in the world". In one sense he is right. It's a given that the Big Four will retain their exclusivity. It is just a question of the order of merit. With Manchester United appearing vulnerable initially with the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and possibly Wayne Rooney, the tentative selection is Chelsea. There is just a suspicion that Liverpool may surprise us all, and actuallyhave domestic issues on their mind from the start, but Arsenalare a concern, having lost Mathieu Flamini and Alexander Hleb. And, realistically, that's it –unless Everton progress from last season, which appears unlikely, or Tottenham Hotspur finally demonstrate that as Champions' League contenders they are not serial fraudsters.

But never mind the quest for the holy grail. Far more intriguing will be the hunt for gruel by those forced to undergo a hand-to-mouth existence. Fourth from bottom; that is the sole ambition of the promoted trio, accompanied by that age-old quote from every man-ager: "I'd be del-ighted if we finish there. If we do that it would be the equivalent of Manchester United winning the title."

In six days' time, all the brave declarations of intent issued by the promoted clubs will become balanced by the reality of mission improbable. Though we all pretend sorrow for their plight and tut-tut over a league that is so absurdly inequitable, there is more than a touch of schadenfreude. It's like gathering to peer through a window to witness the savagery, blood and gore of abar-room brawl.

Before their followers lacerate this observer with the lash of email invective, consider this: in the past decade, 14 of the 30 teams promoted to the Premier League were immediately relegated. So, those promoted have roughly a 50 per cent chance of slipping immediately into reverse; probably more, considering that some survivors over the years invested relatively heavily.There is no suggestion that this year's intake have done so. True, Stoke have spent £5.5 million on Reading's Dave Kitson, but although the price of strikers is at a premium, that appears excessive for Kitson, who finds himself the bull on the Potters' Route One dartboard.

Pretty it won't be, and by January you imagine that Kitson may be wishing he had stayed at the Madejski as his team scrap to avoid rock-bottom.

Hull, their likeliest rivals, boast a remarkable story. Only four years ago, the Tigers were in the old Third Division. But only in comic books does the unthinkable, a second Premier League season for Hull City, occur. Their manager, Phil Brown, moaned about the lack of creativity last season, and was still articulating similar worries after his side were defeated 1-0 by Hearts in last Sunday's friendly. With last season's leading scorer, the on-loan Fraizer Campbell, back with Manchester United, it is difficult to imagine that old warhorse Dean Windass – who, at 39, still somehow eludes the knacker's yard – the 34-year-old Nicky Barmby, or Caleb Folan denting too many top-flight rearguards.

The likeliest survivor among the promoted clubs is Tony Mowbray's Albion, who possess a touch of class, have bought astutely and place the accent on a passing game. But which of the Premier League householders may find themselves subject to repossession? Though Newcastle and West Ham look probable underachievers, they boast sufficient quality. Blackburn, probably do, too, though, deprived of their Merlin, Mark Hughes, they could well flirt with danger. We all witnessed the kind of vacuum that canbe created when "Big Sam" Allardyce vacated the Reebok, leaving "Little Sammy" Lee.

And, speaking of Bolton, would any of us be prepared to see our way out of the credit crunch by backing Gary Megson? Possibly not. Of the others possibly in jeopardy, the experience of Roy Hodgson and Steve Bruce should be sufficient to keep Fulham and Wigan afloat.

In contrast, Phil Brown, in his second full season as a manager,ventures into uncharted territory, with one probable outcome for Hull fans. As Long John Baldry's song concluded: "I can't hold back the tears any more".

Heat of Ashes will be true test of KP's mettle

It was easy to question Kevin Pietersen's appointment, and until the new England captain bounded down The Oval steps on Thursday many seized that opportunity. After his first three days, which included a century, it would be easier still to raise him to extravagant heights.

We should resist that temptation. Or at least leave it until next summer before doing so. You do not discern the degree of a man's support among the ranks or his propensity for leadership when there is a mere flickering of flames of conflict. Whateverthe outcome in this final Test, the Ashes series next year, when the heat of battle is likely to be turned to maximum, will be a rather different examination from what a triumphant, and possibly demob-happy, South Africahave provided.

Not least, it may place under scrutiny the whole nature of playing sport under a flag of convenience. Though the majority of us would accept that Pietersen has more than demonstrated his "Englishness", one suspects that he will be swiftly accorded a Rusedski-like rejection in some quarters if his adopted nation fails under his leadership.

The principal argument, though, concerns his suitabilityfor the task ahead. No one, and particularly his kingmakers, Hugh Morris, Geoff Miller and Peter Moores, imagined they were anointing another Brearley. If anything, this was more akin to giving the captaincy to a David Beckham in whites, and demanding that he inspire by example. If Pietersen could maintain his own standards while accepting that responsibility, such thinking had much to commend it. One thing was sure. Change was needed. England were languishing while they had in harness a captain who was palpably failing with the bat. So, in one relatively swift switch of personnel, England gained a captain and lost a liability.

They also benefited from the restoration of Steve Harmison and his powers of old. But there was far more to the first hours of Pietersen's captaincy than that. He made astute bowling changes and field alterations without being too much the maverick his batting style might have suggested. As the South African score ticked over at100 for 1 it looked tricky for Pietersen, but minutes later at 105 for 4 it all looked remarkably straightforward.

"I don't think he was challenged that much," said Harmison. "Everything went right for him." Friday's typically belligerent century continued to support a persuasive case for his captaincy, particularly with some around him falling too cheaply.

Admittedly, Pietersen offered catching chances before reaching his hundred, and Vaughan will no doubt have wryly observed from his Sheffield home that his successor immediately embraced the fortune good captains require. Fortune which had turned its back on him.

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