England trio proof of lower-league value in top flight – and they're not alone
QPR and Burnley will play their final games in the Premier League this weekend, but Charlie Austin and Danny Ings won't be going down with them.
The two clubs, whose relegations were confirmed with a handful of games to spare, didn't do enough to retain their place at the highest level – but the same cannot be said for Austin and Ings, the strikers who have offered hope in their sides’ respective battles against the drop.
Both players' form over the past nine months looks set to be rewarded with international recognition this week. Austin is among those who Roy Hodgson called up to the senior side on Thursday ahead of games with Ireland and Slovenia next month, while Ings has been included in Gareth Southgate’s Under-21 squad for the European Championship that kicks off in the middle of June.
Beyond that, a Premier League future surely awaits: Austin has been linked with Liverpool, Chelsea and Newcastle, and Ings is reportedly wanted by Brendan Rodgers’ outfit, Southampton and Manchester United.
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Started from the bottom
With the transfer window soon swinging back open, the success of Austin and Ings this season demonstrates that there is value to be had when shopping in the lower-league market. After netting 17 goals in 34 Premier League appearances, Austin will now command a fee of over £10 million and, although Ings becomes a free agent in the next few weeks, reports suggest Burnley will be entitled to around £5m of compensation.
Both men would probably have been available for a fraction of that price earlier in their careers. Austin has a goal-every-other-game record at almost every club he has represented, from amateur Kintbury Rangers and semi-professional Poole Town to Swindon, Burnley and QPR in the Football League. Ings, while three years Austin’s junior at 22, was also impressing at a lower level as early as 2011, when his fine displays for League One Bournemouth persuaded then Burnley boss Eddie Howe to spend £1m on taking the forward to Turf Moor.
There is an inherent risk to top-tier outfits bringing in players who have only ever played in the Championship, where the quality is lower and the scrutiny less intense. Second division clubs with Premier League ambitions have also been known to slap hefty price tags on their prized assets in an attempt to discourage bids from those higher up the food chain, and many valuations can become heavily distorted.
In the modern age of global scouting networks and transcontinental links between clubs, moreover, it's understandable that transfers between Premier League sides and those lower down the footballing pyramid are becoming less common. The pool of potential players has grown dramatically over the years and the sheer riches available to members of England’s top division – coupled with the league’s worldwide popularity – makes it easier than ever before to attract footballers from all four corners of the planet.
Nevertheless, it's interesting that many mid-table clubs’ transfer business over the last year has largely ignored the Football League. The bulk of Aston Villa’s recruitment was from La Liga (Carlos Sanchez, Carles Gil, Aly Cissokho) and players who have been knocking around the Premier League for years (Joe Cole, Philippe Senderos, Kieran Richardson).
West Brom’s summer additions were primarily from overseas too, with Brown Ideye, Sebastien Pocognoli, Cristian Gamboa, Georgios Samaras and Sebastian Blanco arriving at The Hawthorns from across the world. The idea of buying from the lower leagues was either immediately discarded or later ruled out as fruitless.
Although QPR and Burnley have been condemned back to the Championship after just a single season in the top flight, survival at the first time of asking has generally become more common: between 2003/04 and 2008/09, eight of 15 promoted teams went straight back down, compared to just four of 15 in the subsequent five years.
There are countless potential reasons for this, and it's not always possible to draw sweeping conclusions given each club’s unique set of circumstances. But there is certainly an emerging theme over the past few seasons of breakthrough Premier League stars having backgrounds in the Championship and, in many cases, Leagues One, Two and beyond.
Indeed, aside from Ings and Austin, there have been plenty of other examples of players excelling in their debut top-flight campaign. Kieran Trippier has earned numerous plaudits for his performances for Burnley, while Leicester’s Jamie Vardy – another fresh England call-up formerly of Fleetwood, Halifax and Stocksbridge Park Steels – has been a key man in his side’s miraculous escape act, epitomising the Foxes’ dynamic, high-energy style of football.
There have been numerous other triumphs, too. Aaron Cresswell has been a revelation at West Ham after joining from Ipswich last summer, while Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Morgan Schneiderlin have become Premier League mainstays and played in the World Cup just a few years after performing in League One for Southampton.
Grant Holt scored 15 times for Norwich in 2011/12 and Palace’s Glenn Murray’s goals-per-game ratio was among the best in Europe earlier this year, with both men exceeding expectations in the Premier League after working their way through the divisions.
The conventional wisdom at present is that it's best practice for newly promoted clubs to retain the core of their squad in the Premier League. Seven of Crystal Palace’s starting XI in the 3-1 win at West Ham that essentially secured their survival in February played for the club in the play-offs in 2012/13. Only three players in Leicester's last starting XI weren't playing in the Championship last season. Hull boss Steve Bruce, meanwhile, has recently turned back to the men who earned the Tigers’ Premier League place in the first place, including six of those who represented Hull in the Championship in his line-up for Saturday’s trip to Tottenham.
Such situations, combined with the breakthrough of Austin and Ings this season, suggest that the lower leagues shouldn't be ignored by top-tier clubs in the coming months. With QPR and Burnley’s star men about to represent their countries before potentially sealing moves to members of English football’s elite, their stellar first campaigns in the Premier League should be enough to persuade more clubs to look closer to home this summer.