Mike Holden picks out a handful of players from lower down the football pyramid who could make the step up to the top flight next month...
1. Charlie Austin (QPR)
Let’s kill the pretence and start with the obvious: Austin is a proven Premier League goalscorer (18 in 35 appearances last season) and it was a major shock when the August window shut with him still at Loftus Road. Manchester United and Chelsea were linked, QPR were prepared to sell but no club was willing to meet the initial £15m asking price, creating a £10m scramble on deadline day.
Now the bidding process starts again with the clock on his current contract down to six months; with 10 goals in 12 starts this season taking his professional career total to 130, the 26-year-old won’t be short of suitors. Given the way the Premier League season has panned out, Austin might now be more receptive to the overtures of Leicester and Crystal Palace than he was a few months ago. Newcastle and Aston Villa are the latest clubs to be seriously linked.
2. Benik Afobe (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
Afobe’s penalty-box prowess remains undeniable, his 33 goals in all competitions last term backed up with double figures by mid-December in a struggling team this time around
Wolves turned down three bids from Norwich for the 22-year-old in August, while Newcastle were said to be willing to match any accepted bid. Given their subsequent struggles, the Magpies should be more proactive this time around, especially given the shift in mood around Molineux. Steve Morgan has put Wanderers up for sale, and with Kenny Jackett’s side falling short of expectations on the pitch, a healthy balance sheet has probably become even more important to potential buyers.
Afobe’s penalty-box prowess remains undeniable, his 33 goals in all competitions last term backed up with double figures by mid-December in a struggling team this time around. Interested parties will be acutely aware that his value is likely to rise exponentially if he can reproduce such feats at the highest level.
3. Shane Duffy (Blackburn Rovers)
Few gossip columns are linking the former Everton youngster with a return to the top tier, but his outstanding performance data won’t have escaped the attention of seasoned pragmatists like Alan Pardew, Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce. Not only does the 23-year-old centre-back top the Championship charts for aerial duels and clearances, but 49 attempts on the opposition goal mark him out as a significant set-piece threat.
An international debut for the Rebublic of Ireland last June ought to fuel the player’s ambition. A move to Sunderland might enable the Black Cats to move back from 3-5-2 to a conventional back four, as well as allowing Duffy to forge a partnership with John O’Shea and potentially push him ahead of Richard Keogh in the Euro 2016 pecking order.
4. Alan Judge (Brentford)
The Brentford man has yet to make his senior international debut but is arguably the standout performer in the Championship this season with 10 goals, seven assists and half-a-dozen bottles of champagne
Judges is another Republic of Ireland fringe player in a hurry to catch Martin O’Neill’s eye before the summer. The Brentford man has yet to make his senior international debut but has arguably been the standout performer in the Championship this season with 10 goals, seven assists and half-a-dozen bottles of champagne.
Norwich might be a particularly good fit, either pitching Judge in direct competition with Wes Hoolahan or by demonstrating to O’Neill that the two players can complement each other in rotation; Hoolahan, after all, turns 34 in May and seldom completes 90 minutes nowadays. Whatever the dynamics, the 27-year-old looks like an ideal successor to Carrow Road’s long-serving playmaker.
5. Dan Bentley (Southend United)
The 22-year-old shot-stopper made his intentions perfectly clear when he turned down a new contract in September, just days after the Shrimpers rejected a £1.25m bid for his services from QPR. There’s no ill feeling over the matter, just an acceptance that the player, whose current deal expires in June, wants to play at the highest level possible.
Bentley recently recorded his 50th career clean sheet in his 137th match – reaching the milestone 17 games sooner than Joe Hart – while comparisons with Jack Butland are inevitable considering the pair are the same age. West Ham, Everton and Swansea are among the sides who could benefit from replicating Stoke's foresight and securing their goalkeeping future for years to come.
6. Ahmed Elmohamady (Hull City)
A return to Sunderland is not out of the question, while Aston Villa should be doing everything in their power to attract him to the Midlands
Hull were braced for carnage in the August transfer window but ultimately emerged relatively unscathed, with many of the players who represented them in the Premier League staying put. January looms like a dark cloud on the horizon, however, with Steve Bruce sweating on the future of several key men.
If the Tigers' boss has any input then Elmohamady might be seen as a sacrificial lamb, sparing any damage to the spine of the team. With 132 Premier League appearances under his belt and the ability to operate either as a defender or midfielder in various systems, Elmohamady would be an appealing option for a manager who likes to tinker with formations or simply any side that requires a stronger presence down the right flank. A return to Sunderland is not out of the question, while Aston Villa should be doing everything in their power to attract him to the Midlands.
7. Kemar Roofe (Oxford United)
Not many make the jump from League Two straight into the Premier League, but West Brom harboured high hopes for this Walsall-born raider until Tony Pulis's arrival brought a shift in playing philosophy. Since turning up at the Kassam, the 22-year-old has bagged 18 goals in 33 matches, playing in a variety of roles behind the striker.
His influence as an impact substitute later in the season could be worth untold riches for top-flight clubs if it makes the difference between relegation and survival. He probably best fits the mould of Bournemouth’s recruitment strategy, but he’s a ready-made fallback option for the Championship... which might also suit Aston Villa.
8. Mark Davies (Bolton Wanderers)
Despite the frequent injuries, his ability to look after the ball remains undiminished
Lost in all of the depressing numbers that articulate Bolton’s freefall towards League One is the 89% passing accuracy of a 27-year-old midfielder once heralded as the Premier League’s next big thing. Plenty of water has passed under the bridge since Davies first caught the eye under Owen Coyle, but despite the frequent injuries his ability to look after the ball remains undiminished.
The ex-Wolves youngster is suddenly out of his natural habitat at the Macron – Bolton need sharks right now, not tropical fish – but chuck Davies in at the deep end with a Swansea or an Everton and you suspect he would glide around effortlessly like he's never been away.