Tuesday July 27th, 2010

The Premier League is effectively a series of mini-leagues, and for many sides, seeking promotion or avoiding relegation is the main goal of the season. There is a clutch of sides for whom relegation should be no more than a distant threat, but for whom European qualification is an impossibly distant prospect. Here we look at three of the mid-table sides that may be moving up or down a notch this season:

In Hamburg for the Europa League final last year, I met a Fulham fan who had flown in from New Zealand. He had emigrated from London several years earlier and had agreed with his wife that he would return only "for family deaths or if Fulham reach a Cup final." He had never expected the second part of the agreement to become active, but had happily shelled out several thousand dollars to make the trip. That summed up last season for Fulham: It was a once-in-a-lifetime jaunt round Europe that most fans spent grinning vacantly and expressing disbelief that they were there. Other clubs of similar stature have tended to regard European competition as a burden that places impossible demands on the squad, but Fulham took the Europa League seriously, was rewarded with some epic European nights and saw its league position falter accordingly, from seventh to 12th.

The problem is what comes next. Realistically, as most Fulham fans agreed, last year was as good as it gets for a club of its stature, and success led to the departure of its manager, Roy Hodgson, for Liverpool. It would be no great surprise if a couple of players followed in leaving for bigger clubs -- center back Brede Hangeland has long attracted interest, midfielder Danny Murphy confirmed that his passing remains as precise as ever and Simon Davies looked back to his best after a series of injury problems. Trying to coax Martin Jol to Fulham from Ajax was an understandable attempt to take advantage of the cachet of a European final, but in terms of tradition and the size of its stadium -- an average gate of 23,909 last season was fifth worst in the Premier League -- Fulham is punching above its weight in entering a 10th straight season in the top flight.

It looked destined for relegation when Hodgson took over two and a half seasons ago and there has not been major investment since. It took Hodgson's considerable organizational and motivational skills to lift Fulham, and his replacement may find it difficult to replicate that, not least because players, fans and directors, having tasted success, may fall into the trap of snatching greedily for more. A dreadful away record, something even Hodgson couldn't turn around, gives cause for concern, and after a couple of seasons in the gray comfort of the Premier League's middle regions, it would be no great surprise to find Fulham draw into a relegation fight this time around.

Sunderland has a 48,000-capacity stadium; last season it had the sixth-highest crowds in the Premier League. In terms of games won in the top flight, it remains the seventh-most successful club in English history, and yet it has not won the league title since 1936, and has spent most of the past two decades yo-yoing between divisions. Yes, local economic conditions mean that ticket prices remain among the lowest in the division and, yes, the modern breed of footballer tends to prefer the brighter lights of London or Manchester, but still, by any external criterion, Sunderland is a massive underachiever.

In the 1990s, Niall Quinn was one of the players who did give Sunderland a chance and, as he said, "It got under my skin." He warmed to the rugged charm of the landscape and the curiously pessimistic passion of the fans; where others saw merely an area ravaged by the decline of heavy industry, he identified potential. He used money raised by his testimonial to finance a new children's wing at the city's hospital, and then returned as chairman. The funding he secured, first from a consortium of Irish businessmen and then from Chicago-based entrepreneur Ellis Short, has established Sunderland in the Premier League, and the question now is whether the club can build on that base.

An unlucky draw at Manchester United and home wins over Liverpool and Arsenal last season hinted at better things ahead, but a 108-day run without a win over the winter demonstrated both the slenderness of the squad and the club's endemic lack of self-belief. The pick-up in form toward the end of the season was based on the play of goalkeeper Craig Gordon, but he has broken his arm, and center back John Mensah's loan is still being renegotiated, so there is a sense of uncertainty that has been exacerbated by the sale of Albania international Lorik Cana. But Darren Bent, who hit 24 league goals last season, remains, and the quality of such young players as Lee Cattermole, Jordan Henderson, Fraizer Campbell and the injured David Meyler suggests a club slowly moving in the right direction.

Two seasons ago, as a newly promoted club, Stoke City finished 12th in the Premier League. Last season it won two points more and finished 11th, but it would be a stretch to describe that as progress. The Stoke story is a remarkable one, and what manager Tony Pulis has achieved on a net transfer spend of roughly $43 million over two seasons is extraordinary. Already, though, the club is facing the classic difficulty of the overachiever: What next?

Stoke's football is resolutely pragmatic. No neutral would go out of his way to watch highlights from the Britannia Stadium. The arrival of Matthew Etherington and Tuncay Sanli and a decreasing reliance on Rory Delap's long throws suggest a slow move to a more sophisticated form of soccer, but if the message boards and phone-ins are to be believed, even Stoke fans last season were beginning to tire of their side's physicality.

Realistically, though, what is Pulis to do? Compared to the sides above Stoke in the table, he has a modest budget, and with the players available it is hard to imagine how a more expansive approach could be more successful. So he is left to try, slowly, to integrate more creative players without losing the discipline that has kept Stoke safe from relegation for two seasons. It is a hugely difficult balancing act and, barring a sudden injection of cash or the emergence of a crop of gifted teenagers at the club, it is hard to see how Stoke could achieve much more than it has over the past two years. The glum truth is that, given the economics of modern football -- and Portsmouth's decline is a warning to those who may be tempted to overreach -- this is as good as it gets.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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