Kinkladze and Sinclair hold keys to promotion

FIRST DIVISION

The megabucks may be in the Premiership but the presence of Georgi Kinkladze, Trevor Sinclair, Terry Venables and Steve Bruce means the First Division is hardly bereft of bankable names. To counterbalance a lack of quality in depth, it also promises the fiercest competition in all four sections.

Going into the final third of last season a handful of points separated the sides in play-off contention from those fighting relegation. If standards are even, however, resources are not, although those with no benefactor can take heart from the promotion of Derby and Sunderland, canny spenders both.

Leicester's instant return to the land of milk and money, allied to Crystal Palace's near miss, also indicates that clubs dropping from the Premiership retain a critical edge. Manchester City and Queen's Park Rangers have (so far) resisted overtures for Kinkladze and Sinclair. If they stay - which will depend on a positive start - both should be near the summit.

Bolton's prospects look less bright, especially since Sasa Curcic has now signed for Aston Villa. Their followers, like City's, will have noted Bruce Rioch's availability with interest.

Buying experience for the short-term objective of getting up is a blueprint established by Leeds and Blackburn, who duly dispensed with the likes of Vinnie Jones and David Speedie once up. Birmingham may not expect more than a season or two from Steve Bruce, but he should be hugely influential. Alan Shearer's best foil, Mike Newell, could be a snip at pounds 775,000 alongside the pounds 1.5m Paul Furlong.

Wolves' woes last winter prove that it is not simply a matter of throwing money at the market. Mark McGhee's honeymoon with a restless support will be over if his surprisingly low-key close-season recruits - Keith Curle and Iwan Roberts to partner Dean Richards and Steve Bull in the spine of the team - do not produce results.

Sheffield United's revival provided pleasing confirmation of Howard Kendall's rehabilitation and of boardroom ambition. Nigel Spackman, as player-assistant manager, and the Belarus striker Peter Kachuro are the major additions to a squad already equipped for the higher reaches.

As for Dave Bassett's new charges, Palace, "all" they have to do is recapture the consistency he instilled during their spring surge. Much depends on finding someone good enough to fill Nigel Martyn's gloves - the Simon Tracey deal floundered yesterday - and on Ray Houghton's enduring relish for the fray.

Norwich, with Mike Walker restored, should be thereabouts if not quite there. Spencer Prior's defection to Leicester will not be seen as a continuation of Robert Chase's selling policy if it means holding on to Darren Eadie. The scenario at Portsmouth has echoes of the hostility to Chase, and Venables may yet be tempted elsewhere if fresh capital is not forthcoming.

Charlton and Huddersfield, having lost Lee Bowyer and Andy Booth, may have to settle for respectability. West Bromwich and Swindon could be better dark horses. Albion followed the cult capture of Richard Sneekes by freeing the purse strings for Alan Buckley, while Steve McMahon is too ruthless to rest on the laurels of Swindon's Second Division title.

Neighbouring Reading and Oxford may toil, along with Oldham, Southend and the Potteries clubs. Port Vale's FA Cup exploits were a fine advertisement for flair on a shoestring, but John Rudge can not defy straitened circumstances indefinitely. Lou Macari deserved an award for taking Stoke to fourth place after minimal outlay. Key players have gone, and Mike Sheron and Larus Sigurdsson could follow to ease debts, so a repeat would be a real loaves-and-fishes job.

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