Premier lure of riches

Norman Fox weighs up the credentials of the promotion hopefuls
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The Independent Online
HIGH among the fears about the Premiership was that it would become an organisation you entered by invitation only. Some of the founder chairmen still believe that they should be protected against relegation and the ghastly possibility that clubs with little breeding, like Tranmere Rovers or even Reading, may become members.

What irony today's remaining First Division games and the play-offs could bring. With Middlesbrough already champions, only a seaside bucketful of goals by Barnsley at Southend can alter the play-offs involving Bolton, Reading, Wolves and Tranmere. Reading and Tranmere never mixed with the aristocracy of the old First Division, let alone the Premiership.

Begging the pardon of Barnsley, how do the four Premiership hopefuls and Middlesbrough view their chances among the snobs? Middlesbrough has always seemed to be a big club in waiting. Appropriately, their arrival back in the top flight coincides with moving to a new stadium called Riverside, which Bryan Robson hopes will not be as impersonal as it sounds. In spite of his lack of management and coaching experience, Robson has done such a fine job at Middlesbrough that not only has he enhanced his position as England manager designate but made it increasingly likely that he will move to a bigger club.

For the moment, he dismisses any such notion and says he never thought he would become as committed to management as he was to playing. He admitted, however: "I've not seen a truly outstanding team in the First Division this season." Even so he doesn't go along with the argument that whoever goes up will come straight back down; just that there is a certain blandness.

One of the players in his sights is Blackburn's Stuart Ripley, who began his career at Middlesbrough. So does the club have the money? "I would like to think we have over £5m available, but wait and see." He admitted that securing promotion in midweek was a big relief not because it took the pressure off today's game with Tranmere but because he knew that some of his team, notably Jamie Pollock, had said they did not want another season in the First Division.

In spite of their remarkable ascent, thanks largely to the backing of Peter Johnson, the business nous of Frank Corfe and the goals of John Aldridge, Tranmere are under no illusions about their standing in football's overall scheme of things. Their manager, John King, said:"My ambition was not to have Tranmere being compared with clubs like United or Liverpool but to give us the chance to play against them in the same league. Now we could get that chance."

King's concern is that if Tranmere could do such silly things under pressure as lose 5-1 to West Brom in the run-in, the weekly burden of facing big- name clubs may prove too great. "In the last few weeks it sometimes felt as if none of us in the First wanted to go up," he said. But with Aldridge continuing to put away more than 20 goals a season, the question marks are more over the defence.

Graham Taylor at Wolves is another manager concerned that big occasions have led to the conceding of late, damaging goals; and he is troubled that the weakness goes deeper. He said: "Our biggest problem is that we sometimes seem as good at giving away goals as we are at scoring them - we've scored more and conceded more than any of the others in the top six."

Bolton have found the final push ominously difficult. Bruce Rioch has no complaints about any aspect of his team's challenge. Yet it was not long ago that the Wanderers were on a straight path that looked like bringing them both Cup glory and the First Division title rather than a battle in the play-offs. Bolton probably have the popular vote; their football is positive and interesting, as is Rioch's approach.

He feels the Premiership is already dangerously close to being the monopoly of the rich; that promotion would persuade a number of his better young players to stay, not to mention himself. More and more, players with ability realise that the difference between average success in the First Division and playing near the top of the Premiership is that of having a good income or being made for life. "That's what the clubs going up have to face."

Reading's challenge is still not being taken seriously, sometimes not even by themselves. The irony at Elm Park is that Reading's previous manager, Mark McGhee, returns to the First with Leicester. He left Reading in the care of Jimmy Quinn, who said: "I know that if we do make it, I'll have to strengthen the squad. We've spent this season telling the players they are good enough for this division, but the Premiership is something else." McGhee would vouch for that.