Sunday, January 20, 2008

The January trolley dash

In a bout of Supermarket Sweeping that would make even Dale Winton blush, British clubs have already broken the spending record for the January transfer window - and there's still almost two weeks left.

While the 'Hey big spender' badge is currently held by Chelsea, with around 25 big ones being lashed on Sulky Nic and Serbian international Branislav Ivanovic, it is the clubs in the bottom third who have been most frantic in their hunt for hastily-scribbled signatures.

Paul Jewell will attempt to plug the holes in his leaking Derby ship by using Robbie Savage's ridiculous barnet - swept off a Blackburn barber's floor for £1.5m - and unknown Argentinian, Emmanuel Villa. Fulham have payed around 5 mil for Brede Hangeland and Eddie Johnson, centre-back and centre-forward respectively; whilst they're also duking it out with Wigan for the privilege of lining Watford's pockets with crisp fifties (£5m worth, no less) in return for the services of Marlon King.

Knocking all the above into a cocked hat, however, is Alex McLeish, with the Birmingham manager laying out a princely £5.75m for fellow Scot, Everton's James McFadden, and another million and a half to take Hibs' David Murphy south of the border. Bolton too, have expended a hefty whack (another 5 oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh pounds) on taking Matty Taylor from Fratton Park, and it seems that of those teams desperately trying to put some distance between themselves and relegation town, only Sunderland, Reading and arguably Boro are yet to really throw the chequebook at someone.

Doubtless, some of this thinking comes from casting back to West Ham's eventual survival last season, after the Hammers began January in the bottom three. In bringing in the likes of Lucas Neill, Matthew Upson, Luis Boa-Morte and Nigel Quashie, Alan Curbishley paid out over £10m, while the teams eventually o'erleapt by the east Londoners, Charlton and Sheffield United, spent relatively little.

Similarly, Harry Redknapp resurrected Pompey by completely restructuring the ailing side that his predecessor Alain Perrin had assembled. The signing of players like Sean Davis, Pedro Mendes and Noe Pamarot from Spurs, as well as club record buy Benjani, Dean Kiely in goal, and Wayne Routledge and Andres D'Allesandro on loan, boosted the south coast club, lifting them away from a relegation spot before the final game of the season, and sealing 'Arry's reputation as a master wheeler-dealer.

However, while these two examples showcase the January transfer window as an opportunity for clubs in trouble to mount a bid for safety swaddled in the protective layers of a heavy bankroll, it hasn't always been thus. West Brom, the only club to climb from that gravest of positions, bottom at Christmas, did it with barely a note changing hands (£1.5m to Burnley for Richard Chaplow being their sole expenditure) - although the canny free signing of Premiership old-stager, Kevin Campbell, and then-bright-young-thing, Kieran Richardson, on loan, certainly strengthened Brian Robson's hand.

In fact, back in those days, the window was merely another aspect of the league beholden to the tyranny of the big clubs. In 2004, the three biggest deals involved Arsenal (£17.5m for Jose-Antonio Reyes), Man U (£12m on Louis Saha) and Chelsea (£10m for Scott Parker); while Newcastle (who in the minds of the Toon are the biggest club on the disc) blew £9m on Jonathan Woodgate during the 2003 window and £8m on Jean-Alain Boumsong in 2005, topping the spending charts both times.

Of course, leaving the dance floor while the relegation tango is in full swing has always relied on elbow grease and teamwork - not something you can pick up in the January sales. West Ham ultimately had Carlos Tevez to thank for coming good during the second half of last season, while Redknapp managed to get large parts of his old Pompey squad working again, sprinkling some much-needed quality on top courtesy of the new chairman's wallet.

The likes of McFadden, Taylor and Savage will doubtless be joined by others, as the cash swilling around even the lower reaches of the Premier League is put to use by desperate owners. Whether this abundance of bunce will do anything more than keep a few more agents in pinstripe suits, I don't know.

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