Hot property kept out in the cold

New money has produced an underused profusion of costly Premiership talent. Norman Fox looks at the outcast millionaires
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The Independent Online
NOTTINGHAM FOREST fans celebrating another Uefa Cup win, over Lyon at the City Ground last Tuesday, sang loud, long and with damning accuracy: "One team in Europe, there's only one team in Europe". But with only one Premiership side left and widespread criticism of British standards generally, the absurdity of the situation is that a sizeable clutch of formerly well-established players, in some cases internationals, are at present talented misfits, transfer millionaires who are unable to command first-team places at clubs now supposed to be the poor relations of Europe.

As television and sponsorship money has poured in and the Premiership's nouveau riche have gone out to bid alongside Italian, Spanish and German buyers, players who a few years ago would never have considered coming to Britain are not only here but, in some cases, struggling for recognition.

Forest themselves have got one of the misfits in Andrea Silenzi. Whereas in the past the bulk of imports came cheaply from eastern Europe, this Italian international arrived from Torino for about pounds 1.6m. Yet against Lyon he was making just his second start of the season, and only because Jason Lee was injured. He was substituted after 69 minutes. Lee used to be Southend United's lone striker; at Napoli, Silenzi partnered Maradona.

Stan Collymore says his pounds 8.5m price tag was not of his making, but having been stuck with it he knows exactly what he thinks about being a reserve: "Bloody frustrating". In a recent long chat with Liverpool's manager, Roy Evans, it was explained to him that even though he cost a record fee he was part of a big "set-up" with a long tradition of blooding newcomers gradually. But there are reserves and reserves. Recently Evans had pounds 17m worth of players in his Pontins League side against Bolton and they still lost 2-0. Sammy Lee, Liverpool's second-team coach, admits that inspiring high-profile reserves is often more difficult than working with ambitious youngsters.

Keeping a player like Collymore in the "stiffs" and happy is virtually impossible but Evans said: "Our main problem has been that with so many games, we've hardly had a chance to work with him in training." He remains diplomatic about many of the other famous reserves such as Michael Thomas, Stig Bjornebye, Nigel Clough, Jan Molby, Mark Walters and Neil Ruddock, knowing that a high proportion were bought during the erratic, panicky days of Graeme Souness's management. Phil Thompson, the former Liverpool defender, now reserve-team manager, says: "It can be a hell of a task to get the best out of them. Sometimes I had up to eight first-team players in the reserves, which defeated the object of bringing on the young lads." He is not convinced the present bunch of highly paid deputies have the same attitude as those in the past who were prepared to "play out of their skin" to get back in the senior side. Peter Robinson, Liverpool's chief executive, points out that the club's investment in Collymore was made mainly because, having gone three seasons without winning a trophy, the club was in danger of seeing supporter confidence decline. The feelgood factor is expensively bought.

By and large the past two years' unprecedented input of players from abroad has been a success, with Middlesbrough's Juninho quickly adapting, Tony Yeboah a wow at Leeds, David Ginola winning hearts in Newcastle, Dennis Bergkamp now finding the net regularly at Arsenal and, despite predictable knee problems, Ruud Gullit playing rather better than Chelsea. But even clubs that have struggled this season have had millions of pounds' worth of costly players in reserve. Everton bought the Nigerian Daniel Amokachi for pounds 3m from Bruges but in spite of being one of only five Premiership- based players recently named on the shortlist for this year's European Player of the Year award, for most of this season he has been on the bench, along with the excellent David Unsworth.

Newcastle's manager, Kevin Keegan, says that to have what he likes to believe is "the best squad in the Premier League" he has to retain what is probably the second largest proportion of valuable reserves. Among them are the Swiss international Marc Hottiger and Pavel Srnicek, the Czech international goalkeeper, who has been displaced by Shaka Hislop. Keegan may not be the first to say "goalkeepers are different" but he makes the point that the first-team keeper must be given competition. At Tottenham,Norway's Erik Thorstvedt might be forgiven for saying that the competition from Ian Walker has been all too tough, while Ilie Dumitrescu, who came from Steaua Bucharest last year for a then club record pounds 2.6m, has spent more time in the reserves than the first team.

While all the managers mouth the same stuff about reserve-team players remaining happy provided they believe the "boss" is open-minded about change, they all know that sooner or later there will be a knock on the door and someone repeating the familiar lament: "Reserve team football's no good for me, boss." One club chairman, who prefers not to be named ("in case word gets round that we're a soft touch"), said: "How do you keep them happy? In one word, money. But even that doesn't always work."