It’s a seemingly straightforward question: Why don’t Premier League clubs more often sign prolific strikers from the second tier of English football?
So far this season the Championship has been graced by a number of regular goalscorers who all, to a greater or lesser extent, would appear to fit the profile sought by many Premier League clubs.
Across the likes of Charlie Austin, Jordan Rhodes, Danny Ings and current top scorer Ross McCormack (17 goals in 23 games) you will see most of the attributes desired at the highest level—pace, hold-up play, a clinical touch in the box—while all, tantalisingly, would still seem to be some way from their peak (McCormack, at 27, is the oldest by three years).
What is more, none of them would cost the Earth. While their respective clubs would undoubtedly not be keen to let them go—crucial as they are to the pursuit of promotion—the financial realities of English football mean they would remain somewhat powerless to resist a bid that would otherwise be considered small change to those swimming in Premier League television payments—the very same riches they are hoping to reach themselves soon.
Apparently not. During a summer where Austin was sold to recently relegated Queens Park Rangers from Burnley for around £4 million and Rhodes, one presumes, was available for no more than the £8 million Blackburn Rovers (now mired in grave financial concerns) paid for him 12 months prior, Premier League sides almost uniformly looked elsewhere for goals.
For the likes of Tottenham and Manchester City, who spent over £50 million in combination on Robert Soldado and Alvaro Negredo, paying a premium for foreign stars makes sense, considering their aims for the season. But other clubs, of perhaps more modest ambitions, also opted to spend big on established names or promising continental talents rather than look to the Championship for their next goalscorer.
The list is almost endless. Southampton beat off rumoured interest from Spurs to sign Pablo Osvaldo for £14 million from Roma, while Fulham and Stoke City agreed to pay high wages (but admittedly small fees) to take risks on Darren Bent and Marko Arnautovic.
Aston Villa willingly paid £7 million for Libor Kozak from Lazio, while Sunderland found nearly £9 million for the similarly imposing Jozy Altidore to depart AZ Alkmaar and lead their line instead.
Swansea paid over £12 million for Wilfried Bony—six times what they paid for Michu, and his 18 league goals, a year earlier—while Norwich forked out more than that in combination for Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Johan Elmander and Gary Hooper, although the latter was admittedly prolific in England’s second tier for Scunthorpe between 2008 and 2010.
What is most surprising, perhaps, is that even the three newly promoted sides eschewed returning to their former pond for talent, instead spending their new fortunes on either players with Premier League experience (to limited effect) or looking further afield.
Cardiff spent big on Andreas Cornelius and then complemented him with Peter Odemwingie, while Hull picked up Yannick Sagbo for a relative song from French side Evian. Crystal Palace, meanwhile, were relatively frugal—taking on Marouane Chamakh’s contract from Arsenal in exchange for a small transfer fee, and then adding Cameron Jerome on loan.
That was not the entirety of their attacking purchases, though. At the start of the summer Palace broke their transfer record to sign youngster Dwight Gayle from Peterborough, a forward who scored 13 goals in 29 games for the relegation-threatened side last term. He has scored three goals for the club so far this season, Boxing Day’s last-minute winner away to Aston Villa being the most impressive.
Indeed, about the only two exceptions to that in the last three summer transfer windows came from two promoted sides—Southampton, when they bought Jay Rodriguez from Burnley (although Rodriguez is more of a “wide forward”) and Swansea, who paid £3.5 million to lure Championship top scorer Danny Graham (24 goals) from Watford after they clinched play-off promotion in 2011.
It is Graham, however, who may hold the key to understanding why the likes of Austin and Rhodes are being overlooked by the Premier League. Graham was in the news this month after he scored a far post finish for current side Hull in a 1-1 draw against Swansea…his first goal in 30 Premier League games.
The striker never managed a single goal for the Black Cats, who duly loaned him out to Hull for the new season—discarding him almost as quickly as they had signed him as they re-opened the chequebook for Altidore.
Grant Holt was second top scorer in the Championship behind Graham in 2010-11, helping Norwich to promotion. Yet he too suffered something akin to “second-season syndrome”, scoring 15 goals as the Canaries stayed up in 2012, but managing just eight (from two fewer games) the following campaign.
He now finds himself plying his trade with Wigan, after the signings of van Wolfswinkel, Hooper and Elmander made it abundantly clear he was no longer in the club’s plans.
Why did Holt and Graham’s goalscoring drop-off so significantly between their first and second seasons in the top-flight? For Graham the arrival of Michu seemed to simply marginalise him, but for Holt it was a change of manager that perhaps affected things—Paul Lambert leaving for Aston Villa after the first season, as Chris Hughton came in with a more pragmatic, defence-first approach.
“We play a different style of football under Chris Hughton, so I'm not getting as many chances as I did last season,” he told the Daily Mirror last December. “But it’s not about Grant Holt, it’s about Norwich City and, as long as I'm doing a good job for the team, then I'm happy.”
Perhaps Holt paid the price of perception, the lingering belief that, as a product of English football’s lower tiers (he had prior spells at Sheffield Wednesday, Rochdale, Nottingham Forest and Shrewsbury Town) he was a one-dimensional striker, capable only of being a physical presence who occasionally finishes off chances in the box.
Perhaps it is this perception that now afflicts Burnley’s Sam Vokes, or even Watford’s Troy Deeney.
“It does annoy me a bit and it’s usually people who don’t see too much of me who say that,” Holt said, in response to such suggestion. “But I'm not just a big man who wins headers and scores tap-ins.
“There is a lot more to my game than just being big. I try to hold the ball up, bring others into play, score lots of different types of goals and defend well too.”
Much of that seems to also describe Southampton’s main forward, Rickie Lambert. If Graham’s experiences are key to understanding why Championship strikers are rarely signed by Premier League clubs, then Lambert’s exploits might be key to seeing that change.
Lambert came into the Premier League a year after Holt following a similarly varied lower-league career, having helped Southampton back into the Premier League with 27 goals in the Championship.
The Merseysider took that form straight into the Premier League, scoring a wonderful first-time effort against champions Manchester City on the opening day of the season—a strike that perhaps instantly changed perceptions about him in a way Holt (rightly or wrongly) never managed.
Like Holt, Lambert ended his first season in the top flight with 15 goals—and, like Holt, that form saw him linked with an England call. Yet, unlike Holt, that talk actually became something concrete—as Lambert played, and scored, on his debut (and with his first touch) against Scotland in August.
He has gone on to play in World Cup qualifiers, and seems to have a great chance of going to the World Cup next summer as Daniel Sturridge’s back-up.
Yet, back in the Premier League, Lambert initially also appeared to be suffering from second-season syndrome. He only scored four goals in his first 12 games, also finding himself ceding some playing time to the aforementioned Osvaldo, and struggling to jell with the Italy international when both were playing together.
But two goals in as many games around Christmas made his current return, six in 16 starts, look much better—while tactically he was offering more than ever to support the continuing evolution of Rodriguez and Adam Lallana (he also has five assists to his name), who have both earned international recognition in recent months.
"I'm hoping that people are seeing what kind of role I'm playing because it's not the same role that I've been playing in the last few years, it's changed,” Lambert told the Daily Express last month.
"I'm working a lot harder defensively, and I hope people are seeing that, but I'm absolutely enjoying it.”
The changes Lambert hints at would appear to be another factor. Setting aside the fact the Premier League is of a higher standard, where chances are going to be at a greater premium and more sophisticated scouting means that defenders, especially after they have faced an attacker once or twice, will quickly know his strengths and weaknesses, there is the fact that being an attacker in the Premier League is not all about, well, attacking.
Southampton, for example, play a high-tempo pressing game that starts in attack, meaning Lambert and/or Osvaldo have to keep working even when their side is without the ball. They are then expected to link play once possession is regained, being as useful an option 40 yards from goal as they are inside the box.
This is a more recent tactical phenomenon, however, in a league where long balls are now less prevalent than anywhere else in Europe (as highlighted by The Guardian).
There is also perhaps a grain of truth in the suggestion that Lambert is a player belatedly making the most of his talent, amid suggestions he was not completely dedicated to his craft earlier in his career.
"I think he would admit that perhaps his lifestyle let him down a little bit and he liked a pint and a pie," Newcastle boss Alan Pardew, who brought Lambert to Southampton, noted earlier this month to the Daily Star. "I don't think he would be embarrassed by me saying that.
"I had a couple of long chats with him about it. But the player still needs to do it and he has been terrific."
Yet “second season syndrome” seems to have affected every ex-Championship striker who enjoyed a good first campaign at the highest level—perhaps Lambert is the exception, and most players have rested on their laurels after a good first campaign in the top flight, believing they have "made it".
Since Kevin Phillips—who fired Sunderland to promotion in 1999 and then scored 30 goals in the Premier League, following that with 14 the season after) no player previously playing in England’s second tier has managed to sustain his form at the highest level, with the drop-off noticeable.
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Perhaps this is why Premier League clubs are staying away from Championship clubs now. But, by the same token, perhaps Lambert’s continuing form—if indeed it does continue—will persuade some Premier League clubs to change that approach. Liverpool, for example, have been linked with Ings, while Rhodes has been mentioned in dispatches with the likes of Palace and Fulham.
There is only really received wisdom, and theories about tactics and circumstances, to explain why prolific Championship strikers have typically failed to flourish—beyond an impressive first season, at least—in the Premier League.
Nevertheless, for better or worse it seems getting promoted with their Championship sides is the most likely route to the big-time for Ings, Austin et al.
Lambert’s examples, however, might just inspire one or two clubs to change that. With relegation a legitimate concern for at least 10 of the clubs in the division coming into January, just a handful of additional goals could prove decisive.