Midland move to join the moneyed classes

DIVISION-BY-DIVISION: As the pressure for success builds up, Glenn Moore considers the promotion and relegation prospects
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The Independent Online
The Wolves are at the door again, huffing and puffing with all their might. Will this be the year they finally get through and join the rest of the piggies in the Premiership, gorging at the trough of the Sky millions while the Endsleigh withers?

If they do, it will not be for lack of trying. While Graham Taylor has been relatively restricted in his buying this summer, his pounds 1.85m outlay on Dean Richards exceeds anyone else's summer deficit by itself.

While Richards will help tighten a profligate defence, the real bonus for Wolves is the early return of last year's injured, especially the inspirational John De Wolf. Steve Bull and Tony Daley are also fit while Steve Froggatt is less than a month away.

Expectation, too, at St Andrew's, where Barry Fry's Blues revival embarks on its second stanza. The Birmingham City manager has given the cheque book its customary pre-season work-out, although most of the 10 new arrivals have been paid for by the departure of Jose Dominguez.

Plenty of depth, then, but there are doubts about quality. However, Fry's eye for emergent talent, and ability to get the most of his players, will be in evidence again and the team will not lack for support or momentum.

Across the city, Alan Buckley has done well with limited resources at West Bromwich Albion but a sustained challenge seems unlikely. Nevertheless both clubs will eagerly await the first derby - scheduled for 16 September but likely to be switched to Sunday for Central TV.

It promises to be a good year for Central with Derby and Leicester in the promotion frame and Stoke and Port Vale also in the division, albeit probably at the wrong end. Derby, whose failed attempt to buy their way into the Premier will be regarded nervously at Molineux, are trying again in more modest fashion.

Jim Smith, the new manager, must sell to spend but, so far, appears to have used wisely the pounds 2.4m received from Everton for Craig Short. The Dutchmen, Robin van der Laan and Ron Willems, may have come from the rather different locations of the Potteries and the Alps but they have gelled together well in pre-season.

Leicester will miss Mark Draper but have Scott Taylor, from Reading, to replace him. Their six-player clearout is nothing to that threatened at Selhurst Park. Seven players have already gone - realising almost pounds 10m - and Nigel Martyn, Chris Coleman, Richard Shaw and Dean Gordon want to join them. How odd that a team which, collectively, were not capable of staying up seem to be good enough for the Premiership individually.

Palace ought to be a major force, but the new management team of Steve Coppell, Ray Lewington and Peter Nicholas will have to settle the club fast.

The other relegated sides, Ipswich and Norwich, have shown far greater stability. Given Ipswich's inadequacies last year that may not be a good thing but Norwich fans will be pleased that, in an ironic departure from previous summers, they have not sold their best players.

Tranmere, those perennial challengers, have added Wrexham's prolific Gary Bennett to their attack and Shaun Teale to defence. Bennett and John Aldridge could be a deadly - or incompatible - pair while Teale's recruitment looks a typically shrewd move by John King.

Millwall have also spent well. Bobby Bowry and Ricky Newman strenthen the midfield, Chris Malkin and, especially, Uwe Fuchs the forward line. But Andy Roberts will be missed and, inevitably, they are likely to sell again during the season.

Sunderland, left behind by Newcastle and Middlesbrough, need a good season and American goalkeeper Brad Freidel should help them to get one (when he earns a work permit). Sheffield United and Barnsley should be involved again.

Reading, last year's beaten play-off finalists, may have missed their chance at Wembley. Already weakened in midfielder, with playmaker Simon Osborn gone to Queen's Park Rangers and the influential Taylor at Leicester, they have lost their dominating goalkeeper, Shaka Hislop.

Huddersfield have kept their goalscorer Andy Booth - but lost their manager, Neil Warnock. Brian Horton, his replacement, will need all his experience to keep them up. At Southend, Ronnie Whelan the manager looks over-dependent on Ronnie Whelan the player, while Luton's anger at David Pleat's departure may prove all too understandable.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, there will be more meetings about Premiership 2. Greed and the need to stay in touch with the big money could force further radical change in the game's structure.

The gap between this division and the Premier is fast becoming unbridgeable and the likes of Leicester and Palace will soon be condemned to constant yo-yo-ing if something is not done about it. The Premiership clubs appear, belatedly, to have recognised this. Their solution is likely to involve hiving off the Endsleigh's First Division (beginning with a separate TV deal when the Endsleigh's current one expires this season) and let the Devil - or market forces - take care of the rest.

Regionalisation and part-time football would inevitably follow - along with a number of bankruptcies. It could be a dangerous season to get relegated.

FIRST DIVISION

PREDICTIONS

PROMOTION Norwich, Wolves PLAY-OFFS Leicester, Birmingham, Crystal Palace, Derby RELEGATION Luton, Huddersfield, Southend

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