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Jan 8, 2007

Clouded picture in the window

It is the last refuge of the desperate, their final source of hope in a frantic search for a saviour.

And yet, once the hype has subsided, the mobiles have stopped ringing and the agents have retreated to whichever dark place they reside, who will emerge the stronger?

For much of the past four months, the transfer window has been the place where dreams are invested, providing the opportunity to determine the next four months and the chance to emulate Harry Redknapp, whose January signings last year, particularly Pedro Mendes, secured survival in unexpected fashion.

While Redknapp's recruitment drive then featured a sprinkling of mavericks and a fondness for unlikely moves, there is a sense that, 12 months on, the same targets are being pursued and familiar faces will re-emerge in slightly different surroundings.

It is most apparent at West Ham and Charlton. Having completed a part-exchange of managers, the swapped Alans could trade players.

For Alan Curbishley, a change of attitude may be more significant than a change of personnel. Hence the introduction of the snarl of Luis Boa Morte, the costliest signing of the window to date and rumours that he will break up his brat pack by finding new destinations for Nigel Reo-Coker, Bobby Zamora and Anton Ferdinand.

Alan Pardew, within a fortnight of making Darren Bent captain, was willing to countenance selling him, seemingly oblivious to what a weak bargaining position he is in. The difficulty of getting the optimum fee and finding a suitable replacement is multiplied for a club like Charlton, whose likely destination is the Championship.

Not deterred, he reportedly offered Chelsea the injured Bent for £25 million, surely the silliest suggestion of the transfer window to date (despite stiff competition).

And with a quarter of the transfer window gone, Charlton's squad is identical. Nor have many other moves made a significant impact. Neil Warnock has begun his clear-out of his aged and blunted Blades by disposing of Ade Akinbiyi and David Unsworth, but the impact on his team has been minimal.

Wigan, meanwhile, have replaced a central defender who is yet to convince in the Premiership - Andy Webster, loaned to Rangers - with one, in Unsworth, who has not done so for several years.

There is an inevitability that the busiest clubs are batting against the drop. If the identity of previous relegation Red Adairs has been unlikely, several, such as Christophe Dugarry and Kieran Richardson, have struggled to replicate that impact in subsequent seasons.

Not that there has been much evidence of such leftfield signings this time.

Shaun Wright-Phillips, Matthew Upson, David Nugent, Ashley Young, Curtis Davies and Gareth Bale can consider themselves popular though, when demand exceeds supply to such an extent, it is always a recipe for inflated fees.

Lucas Neill, meanwhile, appears to top a number of defensive shortlists, a product of his versatility and a price dictated by a contract that will expire in the summer; Tal Ben Haim and Sylvain Distin, between them linked with the majority of Premiership clubs, are in a similar position.

For the majority, however, their availability is either the product of potential or an admission of failure. Wright-Phillips has consistently underachieved at Chelsea (how will Jose Mourinho find a player ineffective enough to be a like-for-like replacement?). West Ham, meanwhile, have ignored Javier Mascherano to the extent that his departure seems the only option.

For others, a New Year transfer is an occupational hazard. Wayne Routledge, Nigel Quashie and the aforementioned Akinbiyi seem to move every January.

For some, it is more interesting to imagine that more famous players do likewise. It is, for instance, possible to construct your own fabricated ring of transfers.

Say Alan Curbishley wants to be reunited with Scott Parker at West Ham. So Newcastle will sign Joey Barton to replace him, with Manchester City bringing in James Beattie with the money generated and Everton using the proceeds from Nigel Reo-Coker from, well, West Ham (with apologies to the national newspaper that presented most of that as fact).

And yet the most surprising deal has surely already been concluded. Henrik Larsson's arrival at Manchester United was conducted with the stealth; perhaps no surprise given his ability to ghost into pivotal positions on the pitch. Of the deals completed, perhaps only Boa Morte could rival him for impact, though at opposite ends of the league.

By recruiting Larsson, Sir Alex Ferguson caught his rivals by surprise. The same could be said, though for very different reasons, of Adrian Boothroyd when he completed the double signing of Rotherham's Lee Williamson and Will Hoskins.

If the suspicion is that either Manchester United or Chelsea will attempt to make a signing that could determine the destination of the title, that Tottenham will seek to stockpile young talent and that some of the millions of Randy Lerner and Eggert Magnussson will be disposed of in the next three weeks, the first quarter of the window have been marked by frantic activity but little significant change.

If that remains the case, this particular game of musical chairs, no matter how much excitement surrounded its start, will be swiftly forgotten.


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