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Vultures circling the relegation firesale

Few sporting bodies display the same ruthless exploitation of failure as the Premier League. The survival of the fittest automatically entails a struggle for those who have suddenly fallen on hard times. For those expelled from the inner sanctum of the elite, their departure tends to be made all the more difficult as an inferior party of players are left to regroup in the Championship and few clubs are as prone to pruning as those who assumed they were assured of remaining at the top.

The relegation firesale is an unofficial part of the footballing calendar. Sometimes it is enforced by financial problems; on other occasions it is a consequence of players' desire to make an immediate return to the top flight and clubs' ability to cherry-pick the premier performers from their demoted rivals.

Whichever, it appears a particularly prominent part of this summer's transfer market. Blackpool have lost Charlie Adam to Liverpool and David Vaughan to Sunderland and are braced for DJ Campbell's departure, and they might prove the least affected of the reluctant newcomers to the Championship.

Birmingham have sold Craig Gardner and seen the out-of-contract Sebastian Larsson join Sunderland - indeed Steve Bruce, having recruited three midfielders for a combined cost of £5 million, is taking on the role of asset stripper in chief - and let Roger Johnson move to Wolves for £7 million. In addition, they have received offers for Scott Dann and Cameron Jerome, despite the striker's eight-month league goal drought, and can expect others for Ben Foster and, perhaps, Barry Ferguson.

The exodus from St Andrew's could yet be overshadowed, however, by a mass migration from Upton Park to the upper echelons of English football. Demba Ba has signed for Newcastle and Thomas Hitzlsperger, whose contract expired as a result of relegation, may be set for a quick return to the Premier League as well.

Their prolific academy has produced coveted talents such as James Tomkins and Jack Collison, and then there is the issue of the English spine of the side, who were supposed to serve as an insurance against relegation. Matthew Upson, another whose contract concluded in the summer, is officially club-less. Robert Green is an alternative to Foster, an available English goalkeeper, and Carlton Cole, despite his mediocre returns in front of goal, still drew a bid from Stoke. As the reigning Footballer of the Year, Scott Parker is the deluxe target from the downgraded clubs.

By the time September arrives, West Ham's squad may be as depleted as they were in the wake of their last relegation, in 2003. In the meantime, the familiar Mexican stand-off continues, the game of brinkmanship between prospective buyer, reluctant seller and frustrated player. Yet this is no level playing field: the Championship club is at an immediate disadvantage with the loss of status and around £40 million in income. If some players move on for below their market value - and the fact that Birmingham made only £1.5 million in profit after a season in which Gardner scored eight league goals from midfield suggests he is a prime example - it is unsurprising.

But that Gardner, a self-proclaimed Blues fan, has been transferred is telling. The days when outstanding performers opted to stay with demoted sides, as Stuart Pearce did at Nottingham Forest and Georgi Kinkladze at Manchester City in the Premier League's formative years, already appear distant. Perhaps it illustrates the size of the footballing and financial gulf between the divisions. The Championship is damned by comparison with its bigger brother.

That impression should be reinforced this year. The likelihood is that a whole team, possibly with an entire complement of substitutes, will quit the relegated trio for the more glamorous league. In contrast, comparatively few trod that path last summer. Burnley only lost Steven Fletcher and the out-of-contract Robbie Blake to the Premier League, Hull just Boaz Myhill and Steven Mouyokolo, both destined for the bench, besides Stephen Hunt and Portsmouth, excluding loan players, merely bade farewell to Marc Wilson. None joined a club who went on to finish in the top half of the division. In Adam, probably Parker and potentially several others, the movers of 2011 are likely to fare better.

It is a change borne of dramatically different pedigree. Without surviving, Blackpool exceeded expectations, with Adam's rise to prominence proving particularly dramatic. The wholesale raids on Birmingham and West Ham footballers, meanwhile, suggest that these are two clubs who should not have gone down.

History provides a precedent. The clubs who attracted most attention from their former counterparts - West Ham in 2003, Leeds in 2004, Newcastle in 2009 - were those who confounded predictions that they were too good to go down, outfits where able individuals formed a unit considerably less than the sum of their parts. In contrast, those who were left almost untouched, such as the three West Bromwich Albion sides who dropped a division, may be deemed outfits of Championship players who merely holidayed in loftier surroundings.

Once demoted, they were out of sight and out of mind for the top teams. But for those accustomed to life at a higher level and littered with noted talents, relegation makes them prey. The vultures are circling.


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