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Jun 7, 2012

Clint deserves a Fistful of Dollars

In first place, the world-class player at the peak of his powers, whose goal tally showed his efficiency but whose finishing revealed flair in abundance. In second, the man who threatened to outscore him, a forward with a remarkable habit of delivering goals against elite sides. In third, swept into contention on a tide of sentiment, the returning icon, back from retirement to illustrate his timeless gifts. When the football writers cast their votes for their Player of the Year, the podium places were occupied by those storied talents Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes.

But fourth place was the most interesting, least likely story of them all. A footballer who, despite playing for a mid-table side, delivered more goals than all in the Premier League bar Van Persie, Rooney and Sergio Aguero. Moreover, he did so without being a specialist striker. Clint Dempsey was the outsider who gatecrashed the favourites' private party. He had rarely been discussed in such terms, yet the 23 goals Fulham's No. 23 supplied meant, five-and-a-half years into his career in England, he was belatedly afforded recognition. Or he was by the writers, anyway - the Premier League's lone star from Texas was neither selected for the team of the year nor nominated for player of the year by his fellow footballers.

They may soon have to acknowledge Dempsey as a peer. His success could come at a cost for Fulham. "I want to do as much as I can and look back and say I made the most of all the opportunities I've had," the American said last month. "The fact remains I want to play in the Champions League." With an extended contract rejected, he has a solitary year left on his current deal. A mooted price of £4 million seems ridiculously cheap for such a proficient scorer, especially one who can play on either flank, as a central attacking midfielder or a stand-in striker. It is understandable, then, that a man who rose with comparatively little fanfare now has an expanding fanbase.

Yet three of the Champions League entrants can probably be swiftly discounted as potential suitors. As their moves for Eden Hazard and Hulk show, Chelsea go for costly glamour, not bargain functionality. So do Manchester City: Roberto Mancini's sights seem set higher, on Van Persie, Edinson Cavani and their ilk. Manchester United tend to sign younger players and, in Ashley Young, recruited a player who can fill the same roles as Dempsey, albeit differently, last year.

That leaves Arsenal. In some respects, Dempsey can seem their antithesis - no frills but plenty of end product - although each could dispute that assessment. If Dempsey's style can seem muscular and if he appears an unlikely fit for Arsene Wenger's passing game, there can be a delicacy to his finishes: think of the delightful chip against Juventus in Fulham's 2010 Europa League final run. Meanwhile, as Van Persie illustrated, Arsenal can ally class with a clinical touch.

If the evidence is that Arsene Wenger recognises he needs to ease the goalscoring burden on his captain, which has been exacerbated by the failure of Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-Young, the Frenchman is already addressing it. Lukas Podolski should add a goal threat from the left flank - as, after a frustrating first year, could Gervinho if he recaptures the form he showed in France. While he polarises opinion, Theo Walcott already chips in from the right. Even if Van Persie were to go, a direct replacement would presumably be recruited.

So were Dempsey to trade West London for North, it would surely be as a squad player - and, while Tottenham are in the Europa League, the same may be said if he were to become a Spur. As Steven Pienaar has discovered, Harry Redknapp is wedded to his two wingers, while Rafael van der Vaart plays in the hole.

And if England's four Champions League representatives were to ignore the fourth best player last season, it would seem a slight. Yet the concern may be that Dempsey has already enjoyed his annus mirabilis. Consider his goal tally: he has always been a consistent scorer, but last year was off the graph. Before then, incremental increases took him from six to eight, nine and then 13 in a season. A diminishing return surely beckons.

But there is an option among the most illustrious clubs, even if it would not entail immediate participation in the Champions League. Liverpool lacked goals from midfield in a campaign of wasteful underachievement - indeed, Dempsey's league total of 17 was one greater than the combined haul of Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Dirk Kuyt, Lucas Leiva, Maxi Rodriguez, Jonjo Shelvey and Jay Spearing - and there is a clear need for a prolific finisher.

By targeting Gylfi Sigurdsson, prolific in his brief spell at Swansea, Brendan Rodgers has recognised that. With Kuyt going to Fenerbahce, the versatile Dempsey's ability to play on the right flank provides a further reason to sign him, but consider Rodgers' trademark passing game and there is a temptation to wonder if the more direct Dempsey would fit in. Look at his wingers at Swansea and pace was their dominant characteristic, and the American, while scarcely slow, may struggle to keep up with Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair.

This view is that Rodgers will be pragmatic enough to see that Dempsey seems a bargain who could remedy a shortcoming in his new squad, but it raises the possibility that the Premier League's most productive midfielder will be unwanted. It is a strange scenario but this particular Clint cannot be certain an elite manager will go ahead and make his day.

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