January to prove decisive at the bottom
January has long held a significance in the football calendar. Whereas once it was focused on the third round of the FA Cup and its attendant clichés as butcher, baker and candlestick maker planned for Wembley, now the major talking point is the transfer window. Perhaps it is a product of the times when football and finances appear inseparable, but January is deemed a decisive month.
And so it can be, but rarely for the title challengers. There are simplistic assumptions that money equates to success and heavy investment is the remedy to all flaws. A transfer-market transformation can secure silverware, but it is less likely to be the major prizes. A January addition delivered the winning goal in the Carling Cup final last season - Jonathan Woodgate for Tottenham - and another - Lassana Diarra, in his predictably brief stint at Portsmouth - was arguably the outstanding performer in the FA Cup final. The eventual Premier League and European champions, however, only signed Manucho, and promptly loaned him out.
The double runners-up concluded two expensive deals, but Chelsea's New Year newcomers hardly improved their fortunes. Branislav Ivanovic waited eight months for a debut while, though Nicolas Anelka's involvement was immediate, he scored two goals in 24 games and concluded the Champions League final with a tame missed penalty.
His early ineffectuality is part of trend, but so is his recent excellence. The Premier League's leading scorer is emulating earlier January recruits who took time to settle. Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic, for instance, did help Manchester United take the title, but in 2007, 16 months after their arrival and the Frenchman's inauspicious derby debut.
Arsenal can also testify to the long-term benefits of mid-season additions. Theo Walcott and Emmanuel Adebayor joined three years ago, making a negligible contribution to that campaign (the Togolese scored four times and the Englishman did not figure at all before his bizarre selection for the World Cup). Now both rank among Arsene Wenger's successful signings yet their gradual progress indicates the improbability of a January buy changing this season at the Emirates Stadium. It is little wonder that Sir Alex Ferguson habitually says that he does not enjoy doing business in the one-month window; indeed, of the potential winners, perhaps only Liverpool do: the last two Januarys have brought Javier Mascherano and Martin Skrtel to Anfield.
But the title race is rarely won with the injection of fresh legs; indeed, the only Premier League campaign that may have been decided by a mid-season acquisition was the first, and even then Eric Cantona swapped Leeds for Manchester United in November.
Yet where January is most relevant is at the foot of the table, where the criteria are different and the pool of players much deeper. Eligibility for the Champions League is hardly an issue for those seeking to avoid Championship football but, in one respect, the consequences are still bigger. A £1 million signing could save £60 million. Indeed, one did last season: Wilson Palacios. Wigan's subsequent surge up the table suggests Steve Bruce is the ideal manager for a relegation-threatened side in January; five seasons before, a recruitment drive yielded Matthew Upson and Christophe Dugarry, radically altering Birmingham's team and their season.
Indeed, January is a month for escapees, hatching plans to extricate themselves from a precarious position. Twelve months ago, Roy Hodgson's purchase of Brede Hangeland was instrumental in rescuing Fulham from what had appeared a hopeless cause. Three seasons ago, Harry Redknapp's triple swoop on Tottenham - bringing Noe Pamarot, Sean Davis and Pedro Mendes south - produced a very different Portsmouth team, with the Portuguese providing the inspiration in their version of The Great Escape. West Brom's, meanwhile, was aided by loaning Kieran Richardson for the second half of the campaign.
Given the congestion at the foot of the table, it has never been more significant to have a manager who can be trusted in the transfer market. Blackburn replaced the inexperienced Paul Ince with Sam Allardyce, who acquired a reputation as a specialist in the final hours of the window while at Bolton, and such decisions are easily understood. At a time when three points divide 18th from 11th place and only seven separate the basement club, West Brom, from the upper half of the table, even a marginal improvement can be decisive.
Sometimes the competition can be as intense off the field. Last year, Gary Cahill opted for Bolton despite interest from Birmingham; the former survived while the latter perished. Now Craig Bellamy and Scott Parker are West Ham players wanted at potential relegation rivals while Manchester City covet Blackburn's Roque Santa Cruz.
City, of course, represent an anomaly, spending like contenders simply to survive. With more than 60 supposed targets and an open chequebook at Mark Hughes' disposal, they can win any bidding war they choose to enter. It should help, too, that Hughes, like Redknapp and Allardyce, has negotiated a potentially hazardous month with dexterity before.
Ryan Nelsen, David Bentley and Christopher Samba are among his previous January buys whereas, for counterparts such as Tony Adams, Gianfranco Zola and Ricky Sbragia, this represents a novel experience, and one where the former duo are hampered by a shortage of funds.
So attention should be diverted from the tussle for the title to the scrap among the strugglers this month. It will determine the destiny of some Premier League clubs, but they are unlikely to include Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea.