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Alarm bells sounding for Everton

Everton
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Trouble at the bottom

Rewind a decade or so and it would not surprise many to see Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester and Coventry congregated near the foot of a division. Then, however, all were Premiership clubs. Now their concern is staving off relegation from the Championship.

The likelihood is that one will be in League One next season and, in all probability, they will face both Leeds United and Nottingham Forest there. While success in football can be cyclical - and such unpredictability makes a welcome change from the Premier League's seemingly eternal domination by the same four clubs - the reasons for their decline go beyond that.

A common denominator for all as well as other former top-flight clubs such as Leeds, Forest, Norwich, Ipswich and Crystal Palace was their failure to use their two years of parachute payments to fund a return to the top division. For chairmen of their rivals, that £11 million bonus represents an unfair advantage; squander it, however, and the consequences are severe.

That two-season window of opportunity tends to exert a pivotal impact upon clubs for years; either they regain the riches of top-flight football or, deprived of its benefits, struggle to recover from the removal of the additional income. Premier League expenditure makes debts spiral and the lower half of the Championship beckons for some, and League One for others.

Yet their fall is rarely accompanied by a drop in expectations while all too many believe the Premier League is their natural home. In contrast, it is notable how Stoke, Hull, Bristol City and Plymouth have prospered without similar pressure this season. They are not weighed down by their recent history.

Indeed, there is a sense clubs return to the Premier League within two years or not at all. Sunderland (twice), West Ham, Birmingham, Leicester (under Micky Adams) and West Brom (in the Gary Megson era) have managed a suitably swift response to demotion. Watford may yet emulate them this season, along with Albion. But the latter should have greater cause for concern; in their second year in the Championship, they may be more stable than most financially - Tony Mowbray turned in an eight-figure transfer market profit last year - but the precedents for sides stuck in the second flight are less healthy.

The Championship's most talented side also possess arguably its most pronounced self-destructive streak, and cost-cutting tends to be a feature of a third campaign in the second tier.

Southampton, for instance, sold Gareth Bale, Chris Baird and Kenwyne Jones last summer. Seemingly flush with cash, Coventry reacted to relegation by spending £5 million on Lee Hughes; within two years, Hughes himself, David Thompson, Magnus Hedman and Lee Carsley had led an exodus.

But whereas many sides who rapidly restored their top-flight status benefited from stability, this has not been an option for others. Mass departures of players have made overhauls inevitable.

For clubs such as Charlton, deserted by a host of players accustomed to top-flight football, this renders the first season after relegation one of consolidation. In turn, that means the second becomes a year of all or nothing. Incremental improvement is not an option as the decision-making becomes more frantic while the stakes get higher and the patience threshold becomes lower.

In such an environment, the wrong choice of manager can have lasting consequences. A few months after going down, Leicester appointed Craig Levein, wholesale importer of substandard Scots. After a year in the Championship, Crystal Palace hired Peter Taylor, for what swiftly turned out to be a mismatch. Norwich's recruitment of Peter Grant was still worse.

In each case, the second anniversary of demotion marked a turning point as the transformation from exiled Premier League club to a Championship regular, or worse. Norwich spent much of the first half of their third campaign in the relegation zone. Leeds were relegated in their third season in the Championship; Southampton may emulate them.

In each case, of course, there were other reasons for underachievement. The combined efforts of Ken Bates, Dennis Wise and Kevin Blackwell contributed to Leeds' demise. Southampton's needlessly long wait to appoint a successor to George Burley is one cause of their predicament; boardroom squabble and disputes over ownership have hardly helped them, or Coventry. Wednesday, with recent exposure to League One, can testify that their finances have never recovered from the loss of Premier League football.

As for Leicester, Milan Mandaric's surreal revolving door policy sees players and managers come and go at bewildering speed, at a huge loss and with a distinct absence of coherent thinking. That they could go down with statistically the division's best defence is perhaps the strangest element of the Championship's relegation battle.

But even the idiosyncratic Mandaric conforms to a wider trend of clubs trapped in a dangerous cycle of lesser funding, growing debts, increasing frustration and excessive expectations, while average players are unfavourably compared to their predecessors. New stadia provide a permanent reminder that they were designed with Premier League football in mind, not the visits of Hartlepool and Hereford.

And whoever accompanies Colchester and Scunthorpe into League One should provide a cautionary tale to Sheffield United and, probably, Charlton as they begin their final year of parachute payments.

The Blades, in appointing Bryan Robson, are already guilty of one major managerial misjudgement in that crucial two-year window and that bodes ill for them. And Derby's owners appear to have predicated their takeover on a plan of going down and then coming back up again. But it doesn't always work like that.

Sometimes what goes down just keeps falling.

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