Window of opportunity for clubs to buy, buy, buy in the January sales

TV money, the title race and fear mean that the opening of the transfer market on Monday is likely to be the start of a frenetic month, argues Jason Burt
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The Independent Online

Alan Curbishley said he was taking a "gamble" in accepting the manager's job at West Ham United but he is not the only one who is rolling the dice right now. With the January transfer window opening on Monday, it is simply not the season to be relegated from the Premiership.

It means, according to Dan Jones, partner in charge of the sports business group at Deloitte, that last year's record of £70m in deals during the four-week period, itself a £20m increase on the previous two January windows, will comfortably be beaten, with clubs looking to buy, not sell, for the battles ahead.

The reasons are clear. First there is the new television deal which kicks in next season with clubs seeing their revenues from rights rise to £50m a year. Then some clubs - West Ham and Aston Villa - have new owners and this is their first chance to flex their financial muscles.

Another factor is the tightness of the title race, which will tempt Manchester United and Chelsea to spend, and the closeness of the relegation battle, with at least eight clubs fretting. Clubs, however, are even more reluctant to sell to their competitors, which will raise prices.

Jones, whose unit analyses football finance, claimed: "It'll be pretty busy. The next domestic TV deal means there is more money available and more at stake. We won't see clubs reducing their squads, not many are looking at themselves as selling clubs."

It is, says Phil Smith, the agent who runs First Artist with his brother Jon, a time of year when "short-term reality takes away long-term planning". Like many in football, from chairmen down, he does not like the current system. But Smith added: "It can undoubtedly be a window of opportunity. A club that does well in a short space of time can suddenly transform its season. Those fighting against relegation or challenging at the top can be expected to take a bit of a gamble."

As for the number of deals - if United follow up their interest in Bayern Munich's Owen Hargreaves, who is approaching fitness after breaking his leg, and Chelsea acquire Micah Richards, that will be £30m of business done in two deals. Bayern want at least £12m for the midfielder, while Manchester City are holding out for £20m for the England teenager but may settle for £18m.

It will be the first January window in four years - when they signed Scott Parker from Charlton Athletic for £10m - in which Chelsea are expected to spend big, reflecting the competition they face to retain the title. There is also an admission that their manager, Jose Mourinho, has allowed his squad to become unbalanced.

Shaun Wright-Phillips is expected to leave, even though he does not want to, and although Chelsea are holding out for a permanent deal they may have to accept a loan to begin with. The winger is hoping Liverpool, who will buy Blackburn's Lucas Neill, or Arsenal, with Arsène Wenger promising no arrivals , will come in but it is unlikely.

Tottenham Hotspur will also be active. They have money to spend and a number of targets, which may include yet another tilt at Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing and West Bromwich's Curtis Davies. At Newcastle, Glenn Roeder is promising two permanent deals, Wigan Athletic's Paul Jewell wants three, while Bolton Wanderers will also be busy and desperately need another striker. Everton's David Moyes may have to generate money if he is to improve his squad drastically. Portsmouth will not be idle. They may enquire about a permanent deal for Glen Johnson while a striker, possibly Norwich City's Robert Earnshaw, is expected to sign for £4m.

At Villa, Martin O'Neill will have his first real opportunity to try to spend Randy Lerner's cash, and again a striker is a priority. Indeed, many clubs are vying for the same players. O'Neill wants Robbie Keane, in particular, but that move is highly unlikely.

O'Neill said: "In January I think it's difficult to get the quality players you think are capable of doing a big job for the club for the next four or five years." It means many try to work on loans, which also gives them the flexibility of not buying the player if circumstances change.

At the bottom of the table, matters are even more acute. Tony Finnigan, the managing director of the agency Wright, Wright, Wright, said: "There may be more activity than last year simply because there are clubs down there with only a few points separating them. Charlton, Fulham, West Ham. They are all in it."

Finnigan, who expects to complete three deals next month, which should include Nathan Ellington's return to Wigan, added: "From the conversations I've had with the bottom six clubs, it's clear they all want to do some business to save themselves."

Sheffield United have already made their priorities clear while West Ham are revising theirs following Alan Curbishley's arrival. Dean Ashton's injury setback means a striker is a priority.

There is a clear problem. "A player who is going to go to Watford, for example, has to weigh up that, in all probability, he will be playing Championship football next season," Smith said. "That's not dismissing Watford's chances, that's just being realistic. All the bottom clubs have the same problem." Indeed, after the Boxing Day defeat to Arsenal, Adrian Boothroyd acknowledged this when asked what signings he would make.

Many experts, such as Dan Jones, believe that "when push comes to shove, clubs are going for players proven at the highest level". However, this January in particular, there is another intriguing trend: the high number of young, exciting players in the Championship who are attracting interest. That list is headed by Southampton's Gareth Bale. United lead the hunt and a fee of £7m has been mentioned, but the club's manager, George Burley, is adamant the 18-year-old left-back is going nowhere.

Then there is Derby County's Giles Barnes, Greg Halford, the Colchester United right-back, Preston's David Nugent and Matthew Upson of Birmingham City. Even further down the leagues the young strikers Billy Sharp, of Scunthorpe United, and Rotherham's Will Hoskins may also find themselves in the Premiership soon.

Again there is a problem. "If you are in the Championship and doing OK," said Jones, "you are not likely to want to sell, especially if that player is the one who can get you promoted".

Whatever happens, one thing is clear. Despite the window being open for a month, the busiest days will be the final three or four, condensing the transfer frenzy into an even shorter timescale. The dice are about to be rolled.

Moving targets: Five players who could be on their way in the next five weeks

Shaun Wright-Phillips Chelsea (Winger, 25)

A £10m deal was in place with West Ham but that collapsed with the sacking of Alan Pardew and the club's relegation fight. The winger wants to stay at Chelsea but they are seeking a permanent deal. Interest from Portsmouth, Manchester City and Newcastle United.

Vincenzo Montella Roma (Striker, 32)

With so many Premiership clubs in the market for strikers, the Italian, who is currently out of favour with the Serie A side Roma, could arrive on loan at either Fulham or Blackburn Rovers, who have ruled out a move for Everton's unwanted striker James Beattie.

Gareth Bale Southampton (Full-back, 18)

Manchester United lead the way but Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United are all keen on the teenage Welsh international left-back who, because of his age, has only 18 months left on his deal. Southampton say they will resist offers. Time will tell.

David Nugent Preston (Striker, 21)

Do Preston cash in or hope the England Under-21 striker's goals will propel them into the Premiership? Everton have long been linked but have always balked at the £5m asking price, as have Portsmouth, Sheffield United and, so far, Aston Villa.

Will Hoskins Rotherham (Striker, 20)

The striker has been watched by four Premiership clubs - Everton, Middlesbrough, Watford, Reading - plus Celtic, Crystal Palace, Ipswich and Cardiff City even though he is in League One. His contract runs out at the end of the season and he may go for close to £1m.

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