Norwich City, Sheffield United and Aston Villa - the battle for Premier League survival
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The three promoted clubs face a massive challenge in the Premier League, but who’s best equipped to stay up? Chris Lakey reports
Imagine the scenario, if you will: you're in your early 20s, you are ripping it up in the Championship or League One. You're scoring goals for fun.
Inevitably, your value soars and there are clubs in the Premier League who are sniffing around, eager to get a piece of you.
Those clubs are Norwich City, Sheffield United and Aston Villa - promoted to the top flight in May, ready for the toughest challenge of them all come early August. Your current employers have accepted offers from them all.
Who do you choose?
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Who's likely to pay the most? Got to be asked, given that in 10 years time you will probably be looking for another job.
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City are aiming to be self-sufficient and, as they are at pains to point out, promotion doesn't mean the streets around Carrow Road are suddenly paved with gold. Good housekeeping won't suddenly be scrapped. Purse strings are tight and spending will be made with great care. If you want proof, look at the last year or so.
Sheffield United, similarly, aren't thought to be big payers. But Chris Wilder's ingredients for a successful season were built around a spirit and determination that money cannot buy. Yes, they will need to strengthen, but don't expect much. Wilder has been adept at turning sow's ears into silk purses. And if you are thinking of going to Bramall Lane, that pragmatic attitude might just be a little risky for you. It's a big bad league after all. Well worth noting that co-owners Kevin McCabe and HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa'ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud don't get on.
Which leaves Aston Villa, not exactly a crumbling giant and not exactly paupers either. Owned by Wes Edens and his business partner, Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris, Villa are, in comparison, loaded. Villa have a few loan players to replace, but they have the finances to either get them back or sign good replacements - £20m bids are not out of the question. But if there is one word of warning it is an easy one: Fulham. Spending £100m didn't keep them in the top flight for more than one season.
City and Sheffield United seem likely to keep the nucleus of the squads which took them to first and second in the table respectively. There is a school of thought that suggests City's style of play is better suited to the top flight than United's: grace and elegance versus brute force and that quirky tactic of overlapping centre-backs. Are they both in danger of being 'found out'? And could those same players just become small fish in a very large pond? Keeping players happy is a big part of success. Giving the promotion-winning players a go in the Premier League will do that. Villa have to replace players and, you'd guess fund the talent that is Jack Grealish - will that be good for team unity, the asset which served the top two so well?
There's a danger of second-season syndrome for them all, but a year ago, neither Norwich or Sheffield United were expected to be where they are now. Aston Villa were. They were heavily favoured for automatic promotion, but they needed Dean Smith to come in to replace Steve Bruce before they turned their season around. For City and United, this is almost a bonus. For Villa, it is what was expected, even if they did do it the hardest way of the three.
This is where we introduce Ipswich to the argument, because we are talking 'how big is your club' and we all know that three stars on your shirt makes you bigger and better, don't we? It's an argument that will, better be settled, but if you are choosing between Norwich, United and Villa, there is clearly one club that stands out. Villa have more prestige, more cache, more history, perhaps than the other two put together. That is not a slur, but if you are the aforementioned player, Villa is the name that is likely to look more attractive.
Villa Park is a magnificent football stadium. On a good day, packed with fans, it is amazing. If you are a player, it is likely to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
The lure of Villa Park makes it attractive to better players which in turn makes it more likely to be home to a successful team. And there you have the two most important words: "successful team".
Norwich didn't need the Villa-type cache to be a more successful team last season. The history didn't make the Midlanders better than City or Sheffield United. It was about the coaches, the players, the tactics. The 11 men who start the game.
That's what you have to take into consideration. So... know where you are going yet?
Plus: Daniel Farke has the trust of his manager. Looks like there isn't an inflated ego for miles around, and that means a healthy dressing room. Unity is absolutely vital and Farke has created it. The owners trust Stuart Webber and let him get on with things his way: he shoots from the hip, doesn't waste his words.
Plus: Fans - yup, the club has upset quite a few over the last week or two with their hair-brained membership scheme plans. But let's put that to one side and concentrate on the football: the fans and the players have a bond that hasn't been seen at Carrow Road for a while.
Business model: Self-sufficiency. The door isn't open to any old Gulf state, Chinese businessman or Yankee doodle dandy. It's hard yards, but there is security in success. It will mean waving goodbye to your favourite players, but one day there will come a point where that player can stay.
Verdict: Bottom half, but will survive.
Plus: Another team with a manager who can lead his players over hot coals. There's a bit of the Paul Lambert circa 2010 about Chris Wilder - he gets the very, very best out of players. His fans love him - proper Blades man at heart.
Plus: Ok, there may be a case for 'that difficult second album' but United go up with as the same sort of surprise package as City were. Neither was backed to overcome the 'big names', but they did.
Business model: Might help if United's owners weren't at each other's throats. It is a back-drop which Wilder doesn't need, because he is trying to please two masters.
Verdict: Historically one of the three is relegated - the Blades will be close.
Plus: Big club, big name, big history, big beautiful ground. It counts for something. Success could snowball the Villa effect.
Manager: Dean Smith and John Terry seem to work well together: will they cope with pressure if things don't go well? We've seen it happen to a manager there before...
Players: Had a cracking squad last year, but a lot of them were on loan. Will the disruption be problematic?
Verdict: Think they will survive, and comfortably.