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Rovers and Wanderers: Who Will Likely Leave the Relegated Clubs

European football’s silly season began on Sunday, when the transfer window opened and the leagues finally recognized long-negotiated deals.  But there is still a lot of jockeying to come.  Rumours will fly, agents will promise that their clients are going to the biggest clubs, while the clubs deny everything.

It’s also the time when the newly-relegated sides struggle to keep their lineups together.  They all make the same noises about not letting players leave.  But money talks… and clubs don’t relish the reduced revenues that come with their lowered status.

Here then is a look at who could be on the market from the three clubs who fell through the Prem’s trapdoor.

Hoilett hasn’t said which club — or country — he will play for…

Blackburn Rovers
Let’s face it: it only took Venky’s 18 months to sink the Good Ship Blackburn.  Buying a team and then watching it do the drop is bad enough.  But doing it while watching your litigious ex-manager go the other way has got to, well, burn.   Meanwhile the owners are sticking with the guy who some say pushed the other guy out the door.

Meanwhile, the exodus has started as several players have left on a Bosman.  The two most prominent players are Yakubu and Junior Hoilett.  The Nigerian overcame everyone’s expectations (including mine) to score 18 goals for Rovers.  Meanwhile, Hoilett has yet to find a home, but that should be rectified shortly.  Other players that could get scooped up by top clubs include defenders Martin Olsson, Stephen N’Zonzi and Gaël Givet, as well as midfielder Mauro Formica.  But sub-par performances from Scott Dann and Paul Robinson mean they shouldn’t expect to get picked up by a top-flight club.

Bolton reluctant to let go of Davies

Bolton Wanderers
Bolton was another team where their management change wasn’t necessarily for the better.   Owen Coyle left newly-promoted Burnley in January 2010 to take the reins at Bolton.  He’ll now have to face the fans he left behind… likely with a different squad than the one that dropped in May.  Long-time keeper Jussi Jääskeläinen will fill in the gap left by Robert Green at West Ham.  Mark Davies was Bolton’s best player last season… and there are rumours that Liverpool have been sniffing him out.  Martin Petrov could get picked up by a Premier League minnow, and Stuart Holden may feel he needs a bigger stage to figure in Jürgen Klinsmann’s Team USA plans.

Tyrone Mears is too good for the Championship, but after spending last season mending a broken leg, he may feel the need to repay the club.  Both he and Chris Eagles may be reluctant to leave the man that plucked them from Burnley,  especially with former teammate Joe McKee set to play alongside Eagles.

“Now a show of hands please. Who wants to leave the club?…”

Wolverhampton Wanderers
Wolves have been quiet so far this summer, but don’t expect that to last long.   Steven Fletcher scored 30% of the club’s league goals last season, and the word is that Sunderland is tracking him, especially since no one exactly lit up the scoreboard for the Black Cats last season.  Fletcher would be a great target man for Stéphane Sessègnon and Sebastian Larsson at the Stadium of Light.

After spending five years as a loyal servant, Matt Jarvis deserves a chance to jump back into the Premier League.  Ditto Kevin Doyle… although his performance for Ireland at the Euros may not help.  That may also apply to another Irishman (there are seven in the Wolverhampton side), Stephen Hunt. But the left-winger always seems to show up in a lower-table side mere weeks after his former team suffers relegation (Reading to Hull to Wolves).

Brent Lanthier

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Sunk in Stratford, Spurs stadium search heads back to drawing board

I respect tradition as much as the next bloke. But I’m also a pragmatist, which is why I would have been perfectly happy to say yes to Stratford if Tottenham, and not West Ham, had won the right to take over the Olympic Stadium.

It might be West Ham territory, but the Stratford site would have been a great opportunity to build in an area free from residential neighbourhoods, next to the best transit links in East London. Sure, there are two train stations within a few blocks of White Hart Lane. But they’re both tiny, and there’s no tube or DLR for miles. And everything in Tottenham is hemmed in by rows of tiny houses, not wide open plazas and park space.

Given the increased financial pressures clubs will face when UEFA’s Fair Play rules take effect next season, Spurs clearly need a home that will maximize revenues, whether it’s on the supposedly hallowed ground of the High Road in Haringey, the Olympic Park of London’s East End or up north in Enfield.

But all that’s happened on the stadium front for Spurs over the past three months is the team has gone out of its way to trash its own Northumberland Park proposal, even as that plan was winning approval from the Mayor’s office. Then they went out of their way in a different direction, alienating tradition-minded supporters in the process, by trashing the requirements of the post-Olympic plan, choosing brutal honesty instead of the Hammers’ blue-sky thinking. Hey, mind if we knock down your brand new stadium and build a football pitch with no running track around it? You do? Really? Damn. Well, back to the drawing board.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not so cruel and corporate that I wouldn’t prefer a plan that keeps the club in N17, even at a higher cost. But impeding progress for the sake of staying in the borough is folly. Besides, while the address might be the same, there’s not much else about the current White Hart Lane that my grandfather would recognize from the ground where he had a season ticket in the 1950’s. Change is inevitable, whether it’s the addition of luxury boxes and giant video screens, or a new location altogether.

Karren Brady, the Wicked Witch of West Ham, said giving the Olympic Stadium to Spurs would have been “a corporate crime.” Seems a bit strong to me,  and Tottenham are so unimpressed with her scaremongering, and the Olympic decision that they’re considering appeals and legal guarantees to ensure she keeps her word, retractable seats or not, about retaining the track. Brady had better hope the view, from whatever distance, is worth paying for. Otherwise there’s not much chance 60,000 people will pay to watch West Ham eke out a meagre existence at the bottom end of the Premier League…or worse.

Of course, that’s spilt milk now, and Spurs have to move forward. But where? Having rubbished it for weeks, chairman Daniel Levy insists the Northumberland Park plan, even though it’s been approved by the city, is dead in the water, too expensive and too tied up in red tape that’s limiting the scope of surrounding housing developments meant to recoup some cash.

Levy might not have put all his eggs in one basket with his Olympic plan, but the ones he left behind in Tottenham are cracked and broken. And unless he can come up with a working plan for a new home sometime soon, his team is in danger of ending up in the same state.

Ian Harrison

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Fergie’s Fantasy: What I Did and Why I Did it…

Barton elbows Parker out of Ferg's lineup.

So here’s where I stand.  I’m running sixth in the table right now in my fantasy league… but it’s a mere 30 ponts or so from the top spot so it’s still a very tight racel.  I’d feel great if I was Bolton trying for a Europa league spot, but I picture myself more of a Manchester United or Chelsea type when it comes to fantasy football.  After all, I need not remind all those in my pool that I am the defending champ.  The title holder cannot be satisfied with anything but a repeat… so it’s time to play my wild card. 

I figure if At the Rails allows me to give my opinions and advice on how to win your fantasy league, then you may at least want to know how I spent my wild card this transfer window.  The January wild card means you can make as many transfers as you want for one week, but it’s only good for another month.

So I made some moves.  Because really, who wants to read a fantasy column by a guy in sixth?

THE BIG SIGNINGS

First thing to do is figure out who the players are that you don’t have and feel you need, regardless of the cost.   For me, I added high-priced members of Manchester United: Dimitar Berbatov, who I think will continue to score — especially if Rooney stays healthy — and Nani, who has been one of the top point-getters this year. 

To make room, I let go of Johan Elmander who seems to have turned cold after a hot start to the season, and I dropped Samir Nasri.  Dropping Nasri could turn out to be a mistake, but I felt Nani will outscore him and Man United make a push for the title.

THE SACRIFICES

Unfortunately this left me in the hole moneywise.  My big sacrifice was dropping Joe Hart.  His high price has scared off many from picking him up but I have had him from Week One and watched as he more than earned the high price, leading all goalies in fantasy points. 

Scottish and cheap... it's like saying it twice!

But I had to save money for what I felt was a great option out there: Craig Gordon.  Gordon has been injured so his price is low. But since he’s been back, Sunderland have been regularly keeping clean sheets.  I saved some more money at the goalkeeper position by dropping the injured Paul Robinson and picking up Steve Harper who seems to back in the top job for Newcastle. (Ed. Note: I always thought he was a right-winger!  Ahahahahahaha… I’ll shut up now.)

To make it work right down to the penny meant dropping Scott Parker from West Ham for Newcastle’s Joey Barton.  Barton, like many Newcastle players, is still a little undervalued in my opinion… though I will likely keep him mainly on the bench.  And I got rid of Birmingham defender Roger Johnson (whose team I appear to have put a curse on ever since acquiring him as they stopped keeping clean sheets) for Kevin Foley from Wolves.  That move was done purely for cost reasons, but it’s good to know Foley is a cheap starter if I ever need to put him in.

KEEPERS

Rounding out the squad I kept pricey defenders Nemanja Vidic and Leighton Baines, who I think are worth paying top dollar for.  I also kept Everton’s Seamus Coleman (who is really a midfielder so a good buy since the game has him slotted as a defender) along with Fulham’s Aaron Hughes.  I also held on to the stars of the Tottenham midfield Gareth Bale and Rafael Van der Vaart along with Stoke’s Matthew Etherington. 

Up front I couldn’t part with Carlos Tevez, despite his high price and his constant snood wearing.  I also held on to Andrew Carroll hoping his current injury woes are not too serious.

Will these changes take me to the top of the table? Short answer.  I hope so.  I’ve already spent all the money I collected.

Scott Ferguson

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Leeds, Ipswich long for Red Letter Days

Leeds United turned back the clock this weekend

Rewind 10 years to May 2001.  Manchester United had just won their English third league title in a row. It was the first time a single manager — Sir Alex Ferguson — managed the feat.  Arsenal came in second, pipping Liverpool to the spot on the last day of the season.  But the Merseysiders shed few tears, winning a treble of trophies — UEFA Cup, FA & League Cups — and earning a third-place finish that would put them in the Champions League, their first foray into top-tier European football since the Hillsborough disaster.

The top of the table was awash in a sea of red.  But just below them were the other colours of the Union Jack: Leeds United white and Ipswich Town blue.  Both teams were riding high. Both teams would find their success short-lived.

Fast forward 10 years to the present day.  Leeds and Ipswich have spent much of the last decade in the lower leagues, unable to replicate the success of 2000-2001.  Now both teams must go through Arsenal to have any chance of cup glory this season.

Ipswich Town
Back in 2001, both clubs were riding high.  Ipswich had only been promoted the previous season and were widely picked to go down again.  But they stayed in the top six for much of the campaign,  finishing fifth and earning George Burley the Manager of the Year award.  They also picked up a place in the UEFA Cup, the trophy they had won 20 years earlier.

George Burley: Manager of the Year 2001

But that success turned out to be a blip.  After their fifth place finish, the Tractor Boys spent much of the next season at the foot of the table and were relegated, entering administration in the process.  They’ve remained in the First Division/Championship ever since. Ipswich came close to coming back up, securing play-off spots in 2004 and 2005, but lost both times to West Ham.  Since then, they’ve have simply floundered.  The hiring of former Ipswich great Jim Magilton, and then Man U giant Roy Keane, did nothing for either the club’s results… or for the idea of using unqualified players as managers.

Leeds United
For Leeds, the heights were even loftier. Although they slipped from the previous season’s third-place finish, they made up for it in 2001 by going all the way to the Champions League semi-finals.  A 3-0 defeat to Valencia prevented them from facing their opponents in the 1975 final, Bayern Munich.

That Leeds side featured several young players who would make names for themselves at other clubs: Robbie Keane, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Lee Bowyer, Paul Robinson, Alan Smith, Dominic Matteo, Rio Ferdinand.

Leeds: Too good to go down…

But like Icarus flying to close to the sun, the Yorkshire side was burned by pride.  Buoyed by Leeds’ domestic and European success, Chairman Peter Risdale borrowed heavily to secure new players. That proved to be short-sighted: their fourth-place league finish meant they had to settle for the UEFA league.  Leeds lost much-need television revenue and they began their descent.

The team was forced to sell star players to fund debts, killing morale at the club.  Leeds were relegated in 2004, and then dropped again to League One in 2007.  After two playoff losses in a row, the Whites finally got promoted to the Championship last season with a second-place finish.

Cup Success?
One club has rebounded, one has not.  The difference between the two was evident this weekend.   Ipswich sacked Keane on Friday, just two days before the East Anglians were to face Chelsea in the FA Cup.  Owner Marcus Evans was unhappy with Ipswich being in 19th place, but his timing was awful.  The champions and cup holders humiliated Evans’ team, 7-0.

Meanwhile, Leeds — who sit in fifth — almost earned a famous win at the Emirates, if not for a Theo Walcott dive in the dying minutes.  United must now fancy their chances with the replay being held in the intimidating environs of Elland Road.  If they win, a West Yorkshire derby awaits at home against Huddersfield Town.

Ipswich still have a chance at redemption.  New gaffer Paul Jewell will lead them out against the Gooners today at home, in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. Ipswich are 7-1-6 at Portman Road.  But after five trophy-less seasons, Arsene Wenger is hungry for silverware and isn’t likely to let up on the Tractor Boys.

Ten years ago, both Leeds United and Ipswich Town were riding high.  Now, after a decade of being left red-faced, both clubs are hoping for a blue-ribbon day against a formidable opponent, lest they are forced to wave the white flag of surrender.

Brent Lanthier

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Filed under Carling Cup, Champions League, FA Cup

Out with the Old, Inter with the New

Whole Motta love from Leonardo

Premier League clubs, take note.  It seems that the key to revitilizing your squad involves hiring a manager whose resume doesn’t include a stint at a club that rhymes with Shiver Pull.

Such is it with Internazionale. The World Champions never got off the ground under Rafa Benitez.  Even in this summer’s exhibition game in Toronto — against Greek champions Panathinaikos — the Milanese side lacked imagination and flow.  By the end of 2010, Inter sat seventh — 13 points behind their rivals AC Milan, who are threatening to take away one of the trophies their crosstown rivals won in their treble season.

So out goes Rafa and in comes Milano legend Leonardo.  Questions were raised in the Italian north whether the Brazilian could revive the tired and injured-riddled rivals of his former club.  Those questions were put to rest within three minutes during today’s match against Napoli.

The game was riveting from the get-go, with the ball going end-to-end — the antithesis of stereotypes about Italian football.  It was Thiago Motta who sparked the Inter revivial — finishing a Balkan sequence from Dejan Stankovic and Goran Pandev to put them up 1-0.

But Napoli are near the top of the table for a reason.  A corner from Liverpool reject Andrea Dossena went straight into the box, and a brave Michele Pazienza stuck his head in, bringing the Neapolitans level.

Fast forward to the 33rd minute when Diego Milito flubbed a wide cross in front of the net, sending the ball sailing over the crossbar.  But less than a minute later, Inter were back in the box and Esteban Cambiasso made no mistake.  The unmarked Argentine raced in and took a remarkable cross from Maicon in the far corner and converted. 2-1 Inter Milan.

It should be worth noting how Maicon seemed to drive the team forward.  The powerful Brazilian seems to have recovered from injury and awakened from his slumber in the first half of the season.  The fullback was a constant threat on the right, finding the ball wide and providing service for Inter’s attackers.

Motta celebrates his second goal...

But it was Motta who provided the book-ends for Leonardo’s first win in charge.  The former Barca man found the end of Pandev’s corner kick in the 55th, sealing victory for the Nerazzurri.

Massimo Moratti says he considered hiring Leonardo in June, but eventually settled on Benitez.  You can bet that English clubs like Liverpool, Aston Villa and West Ham have also spent the last six months regretting their choice of manager.  All three clubs may yet pull an Inter before the month is through.

Brent Lanthier

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Gaffer Grant-ed Reprieve After Win

"But I am smiling..."

West Ham’s 4-0 demolition of Manchester United in the Carling Cup has bought Avram Grant a little time… but not much.

The win is a nice result that brings the East Enders closer to some long-absent silverware. West Ham haven’t won a trophy since they beat Arsenal 1-0 in the FA Cup final thirty years ago (the last non-top flight team to do so), and they haven’t been this far since their FA Cup final loss to Liverpool in 2006. The Hammers have also ended the Red Devils’ 29-game unbeaten streak… and they did it by shutting them out, while putting four past the hapless Kuszczak.

But it was a fluke, a night where a rare blizzard blanketed London. Anyone who watches the NFL will know that snow and wind are great equalizers that can turn any superstar into a penguin.

Since their takeover, WHU owners Gold and Sullivan (Gullivan?) have talked about a new era at Upton Park. But Grant is not the man to do it. After being plucked from the obscurity of the Israeli leagues and national team by Roman Abramovich, Grant has failed to impress. Supporters say he is Moses when it comes to guiding his sides to cup finals… but like Moses, he isn’t the actual man to lead them out of the desert.

Grant did take Chelsea to a Champions League final (which they lost to Man U), two points away from a Premier League title (which they also lost Man U), and a League Cup final (loo-hoo-ser). But that squad could have coached themselves… and from all accounts, it did.  Last season, Portsmouth fans cheered as Grant steered their destitute club to the FA Cup final (again, a loss) but then had to watch as Pompey dropped back down to the Championship.

In fact, since he was shuffled out of Stamford Bridge, his teams have only won 16 games: about 30%.  It’s simply not good enough. Hammer fans are unforgiving, even if they are a bit forgetful. Tonight they were singing “on the march with Avram’s Army” after Victor Obinna’s three-assist performance. Yet two weeks ago, an incredibly errant kick from the Nigerian left the fans chanting, “That’s why we’re going down”.  And let’s face it: last weekend’s 3-1 win over Wigan wasn’t really the match that will  “save” West Ham’s season.

Despite the lopsided victory over Man U, I doubt that Grant will be around to see The Irons play their Carling semi-final in January.  They are at bottom of the table and now have to travel to Sunderland — who have yet to lose at the Stadium of Light this season — and then face superstar Man City at home, before heading all the way back to Blackburn… and then the holiday run of games begin.  That means West Ham could still be on the bottom by Christmas… a bad portent in the Prem.  Grant can’t hack it in the big league… and the owners know it. 

The bookies list Grant as having the best odds of all Premier League managers to get the sack.  The team is in London for over a week during the Christmas break.  Look for the owners to pull the plug then.

Brent Lanthier

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Oh, give me a home!

For a club that dreams as big as Tottenham Hotspur, whose long-lived fantasy of Champions League football has finally become a reality, there’s no doubt a new stadium is required to remain competitive with the Premier League’s highest rollers. Tottenham has long exhibited fiscal prudence with its wage bill – no Manchester City-style spending sprees leaving mega-millions in debt at Spurs, thank you very much.

Tottenham’s annual outlay on salary is said to be some 50 million pounds, about half that of local rivals Arsenal and less than a third of Chelsea’s. That’s thanks in large part to the limitations of a home ground where capacity is just over 36,000, far below the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal. Almost as many supporters, 32,000 by one count, are on a waiting list for season tickets.

That’s why I didn’t consider Tottenham’s biggest victory last week to be their Champions League home debut, an entertaining, penalty-strewn 4-1 victory over Steve McClaren’s old outfit, reigning Dutch champions FC Twente (a mosht shatishfying night for Shpursh, the former gaffer might have said, was the sly joke in The Telegraph). It wasn’t even the brilliant display that night (red card notwithstanding) of deadline day signing Rafael Van Der Vaart, surely the steal of the transfer window, or his equally efficient display in Saturday’s 2-1 defeat of Aston Villa.

For me, the biggest decision of the week for Spurs was Haringey Council’s approval of a 56,000-seat  stadium redevelopment plan, complete with new homes, hotel and supermarket, just north of White Hart Lane, the team’s home since 1899. Say what you will about its similarity to Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, just down the road. That home, still in the same borough as Highbury and little more than a stone’s throw from the old site, seems to be working out just fine.

London Mayor Boris Johnson still needs to sign off on the new venue, to be built on a four-phase plan that would require no ground-share during construction and give Spurs fans a home where they are closer to the pitch than any other new venue in the country.

But even before Boris had a chance to pour a cup of tea and begin poring over Tottenham’s proposal, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy was muddying the waters, making a joint bid with sports & venue giant AEG to move out of the borough and down the road to Stratford, into the Olympic Stadium that will be left vacant after the 2012 Summer Games.

It might be financially prudent, saving Spurs the hefty cost of putting up an entirely new home in a time of financial insecurity that has made debt more of a dirty word than ever (Hello, Messrs. Hicks and Gillet in Liverpool! Hiya, Glazer guys of Manchster!) But the timing could hardly be worse, could it? Haringey now feels hoodwinked, as do West Ham, who had made their bid to move into the Olympic venue just one day previously. Is a ground share with the Hammers an option? No one knows for sure.

And who really wants to watch football at a converted, downsized stadium that will have a running track separating the pitch from the stands? Community use, concerts and other events (rugby and Twenty20 cricket, for example) would make keeping the pitch in pristine shape a major headache. No one wants to end up drowning in debt, and it may be prudent to keep one’s options open, not knowing how the mayor’s office will rule. But I have a feeling this will all end badly, putting  Tottenham’s much-needed move into a new home that could raise the cash for continued Champions League appearances under serious threat.

Ian Harrison

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