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Buyer beware

In the magazine 'When Saturday Comes' they once ran a cartoon that depicted three journalists (drawn as pigs wearing trilbys with 'press' stuck in the hatband) each holding a bag of the sort once used for the FA Cup draw.

In turn they pull out a piece of paper. The first reads out: "Vinnie Jones". The second: "Real Madrid". The third: "£2m". The first one says, "That'll do".

At this time of year it would be easy to believe this is how the sports media operates, not least because of the speculation industry's expansion beyond the traditional red-tops to what were once known as broadsheets, plus radio, rolling news broadcasters and websites.

The sheer volume of touted transfers is astonishing. Every Premier League club is linked with a minimum half-a-dozen names, yet in this transfer window last year the 20 clubs completed only 10 deals between them.

In fact, very few deals are the figment of journalists' imaginations, or even educated guesses (such as, Everton need a goalscorer, Michael Owen is available, he used to support the club his father once played for, and would like to continue living in nearby north Wales, ergo, "Owen for the Toffees").

Most of the speculation comes from agents, some from clubs. Agents wish to tout a player, or secure him a better deal at his current club; managers and chairmen like to look busy in the market, or put pressure on other pending deals. In addition, people trade information, or simply gossip.


A lot of speculation is accurate, though it never leads to a deal. West Ham co-owner David Gold says the club have 15 "irons in the fire". Even if true this does not mean they will sign 15 players. Five of the Irons' irons may be strikers ranked in descending order of desire.

The challenge for Gold, his partner David Sullivan and manager Avram Grant, is to decide at what point they opt to sign the third choice, who is available but could be lost to a rival if they delay, or hang on in the hope they can secure one of the two preferred options.

Say one of these is Republic of Ireland captain Robbie Keane: do they meet the financial demands of Spurs chairman Daniel Levy, or try to barter him down and risk losing the player to relegation rivals Birmingham or Wolves? It could be a false economy if Keane kept Birmingham up at the expense of West Ham, losing the latter £30m minimum in the process.

But would he? Managers seeking an immediate impact from January transfer signings are backing against history. Good buys can be had in January, but usually they work in the long term.

The classic example would be Patrice Evra. He's now recognised as one of the best left-backs in the Premier League but he struggled to settle at Old Trafford when he signed in January 2006, making a disastrous debut in the Manchester derby and completing only two matches by the end of the season.

West Ham are at least forewarned. Last January, with the new owners wishing to make an impact, they paid Blackburn £2.25m for Benni McCarthy. Overweight and out of condition, McCarthy started twice, was substituted both times, and finished the season dropped from South Africa's World Cup squad. The loan acquisition of Mido was also misguided and while another loanee, Ilan, scored some useful goals, he was released at the end of the season.

Of the deals done last January, Craig Gardner's £3m switch from Aston Villa to Birmingham was the most successful, though Adam Johnson and Younes Kaboul made respectable contributions to Manchester City and Tottenham -- as might be expected at a combined cost of £11m. In the long term, Stoke's capture of Asmir Begovic may prove the best deal, though he played only three games last season.

Aston Villa, Blackburn and Newcastle, all under new management, are expected to be busy, while the budgets allowed to Roy Hodgson, Mark Hughes and Carlo Ancelotti will be a good indication of how much trust their owners have in them. Wolves and Birmingham look as if they could do with a fresh face or two, while the main concern of Blackpool and Bolton will be protecting overachieving squads from predators.

Alex Ferguson tends to buy for the future in January (as well as Evra he signed Nemanja Vidic in this window) but neighbours City look like spending heavily in an attempt to cement their Champions League place and strengthen a title challenge. Arsene Wenger is talking down his interest, but he signed Andrey Arshavin in the window two years ago so is not averse to a deal.

Championship clubs, meanwhile, will be looking to emulate Ian Holloway. It was during this window last year, with Blackpool outside the play-off places, he brought in DJ Campbell and Stephen Dobbie. The pair scored 16 goals between them as the Tangerines won promotion through the play-offs. January signings can provide a lift, but too many are ill-researched panic buys which prove a bad move for player and club. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent