New boys find staying power

Norman Fox says that football's promotion-relegation cycle may be ending
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The Independent Online
Something curious is happening in the state of Premiership football. The turn of the year approaches but none of the teams promoted from the First Division last season is seriously struggling... not yet anyway. "Let's see in four months" advised Jim Smith, the prudent, much-travelled but never quite arrived manager of Derby County. "All you can say is that this time those people who always tell you you'll go straight back down might have got it wrong".

Smith knows better than to start counting his chickens before Easter, let alone Christmas. He knows that the evidence is in favour of the pessimists. Over the past four seasons since the Premiership began, one (or more) of the promoted clubs has always gone quickly into permanent relegation trouble while the others have generally flirted with the possibility. Admittedly Blackburn made a big initial impression but it proved to be like a dent in rubber, and only Newcastle have risen out of the promotion struggle to build some lasting foundations, which in view of their history, local passion and financial support is not surprising.

Those who came up this year, Leicester City, Derby and Sunderland, are not going to upstage Newcastle, but at least they have had satisfying results against much bigger clubs and none has one foot over the relegation cliff while more than half the season remains. According to Smith the attitude of promoted clubs has become more hopeful not because the champions, Manchester United, have already given away a lot of points or that the gap between the have-nots and the multi-millionaires has closed. "The Premiership is still basically divided in half, with the richest in the top half, but the whole division is competitive. You can be halfway up, as we are, but points-wise still be nearer the bottom than the top."

Smith, voted November's Manager Of The Month, is persuaded that hard graft, a well- organised defence and a smattering of inventive players, such as his Aljosa Asanovic, bring a chance of at least living with the big spenders. "The inspiration now is Wimbledon. To anybody who says you'll go straight back down, you just say 'what about Wimbledon'." But Wimbledon's own inspiration, their mend-and-make-do manager Joe Kinnear takes the view that "at the end of the day, we can compete but still get beaten by the cheque book". Smith, a veteran of over 1,000 matches as a manager with eight clubs, still counters: "You can look at Wimbledon and see what enthusiasm can do for you. Normally you don't assume anything until you've got your 40 points.

"This season the promoted clubs all got reasonable starts which was very important, and we've had some good results that perhaps none of us expected. Last year Manchester United and Newcastle were running away with it but Bolton, Manchester City and Queen's Park Rangers were adrift. This season it's much tighter - there's as many people involved in relegation as there are in the championship. We've all seen the situation when at least one of the promoted clubs has had problems the next season. So we've worked hard by bringing players in and raising team spirit . . . that applies to all three sides."

Of the three promoted clubs, Sunderland are the least secure because they need more attacking strength. It was Wimbledon who last weekend showed them what real commitment was about when beating them 3-1, but it was suggested that perhaps a new stadium and the club's share flotation would bring them long-lasting security. Vinnie Jones disagrees. "Roker Park is Sunderland's Plough Lane - it's the place nobody wants to go to. It's worth some points".

Leicester's satisfactory progress this season has come about in spite of the fact that, unlike Derby, they have not gone out in search of several foreign players. Indeed, their most satisfying signing of recent weeks was that of a new contract by Emile Heskey, home-produced but clearly a prospective full England international.

Leicester's manager, Martin O'Neill, joins Smith in cautious optimism. "Even after we had beaten Aston Villa at Villa Park the bookmakers were still putting us among the favourites to go down. All I know is that effort got us into the Premier League and effort has served us well so far". He was not carried away by beating Manchester United's semi-reality team in the Coca-Cola Cup, and rightly since United promptly beat them 3-1 in the Premiership. But he thinks that the more often you cause a small indentation in the armour of the big clubs, the more respect you get from those smaller ones who, come springtime, may also have to struggle

And the last word before any of the three get to thinking that safety is within sight? Sunderland's scrapper-gaffer Peter Reid: "Until you make an impact on this division, you can't claim anything".

A different league: The ups and downs of the clubs promoted in the last five years

1991-92

Promoted: Ipswich Town, Middlesbrough, Blackburn Rovers. Positions at end of 92-93 season: Ipswich 16th, Middlesbrough 21st (rel), Blackburn (4th).

1992-93

Promoted: Newcastle United, West Ham, Swindon. End of 93-94: Newcastle 3rd, West Ham 13th, Swindon 22nd (relegated).

1993-94

Promoted: Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, Leicester City. Positions at end of 94-95: Palace 19th (rel), Forest 3rd, Leicester 21st (rel).

1994-95

Promoted: Middlesbrough, Bolton. End of 95-96: Middlesbrough 12th, Bolton 20th (rel).

1995-96

Promoted: Sunderland, Derby County, Leicester City. Present positions: Sunderland (14th), Derby (11th), Leicester (12th).

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