Aston Villa are maximising the pull of Steven Gerrard this January transfer window, but they would do well to match the ambition of 2017 Hull.
10) Birmingham (2002/03)
If Steve Bruce was to take the hint and pack management in altogether, he would end a storied coaching career with a curious bookend. His first and most recent seasons in a Premier League dugout both featured successful fights against relegation led by an inspirational winter loanee. For Joe Willock at Newcastle in 2021, read 2003’s slightly more cultured Spanish, European and world champion Christophe Dugarry. A languid French striker in his 30s tasked with dragging a club to top-flight survival despite having no prior professional experience in England would doubtless be welcomed with open arms by the punditocracy in the current day, but there were vocal sceptics about the forward acclimatising on a short-term loan deal. Five goals from four games in April offered an appropriate response.
Dugarry’s stay was more fruitful than those experienced by Ferdinand Coly and Piotr Swierczewski, borrowed from Marseille and Lens respectively. That January also saw Bruce call upon the services of Jamie Clapham, Stephen Clemence and Matthew Upson for a combined pittance. All three spent a few seasons in the Midlands before moving on yet it was Dugarry who captured the imagination better than anyone before or after him. Bruce tried to rekindle the magic in January 2005 by loaning players from Arsenal, Liverpool and Deportivo La Coruna, but it was never quite the same.
9) Arsenal (2005/06)
It was not the thrill of permanently capturing third-choice goalkeeping loanee Mart Poom that titillated Arsenal fans in January 2006, but the prospect of their other three new signings helping form the base of the club’s spine for the foreseeable. Auxerre vice-president Gerard Bourgoin explained that Abou Diaby had chosen the Gunners over Chelsea because “Arsene Wenger was better than Jose Mourinho, that’s all,” while actual child Theo Walcott and 21-year-old veteran Emmanuel Adebayor also moved to north London as plans were laid for the future.
Diaby had already featured in the UEFA Cup and was on the radar of France; Walcott would be selected in England’s World Cup squad a matter of months later and was considered a potentially generational talent; Adebayor packed a Champions League runners-up medal into his considerable baggage. None quite lived up to their respective hypes for reasons ranging from injury to unrealistic expectations and, of course, “juju”. Yet their combined arrivals had minds wandering and pulses racing.
8) Derby (2007/08)
With ten points separating them from Premier League safety on New Year’s Day, a Derby team with one win in 20 matches had an admittedly low bar of ‘ambition’ to clear. Actually trying to avoid the Championship from that position was aspirational in itself. Paul Jewell launched himself into that task, mind, with Andy Appleby putting his financial weight behind the manager when his takeover was ratified in mid-January 2008.
The Rams let six players leave, receiving fees for Steve Howard, Andy Griffin, Matt Oakley and Jon Macken that would be recycled into something resembling a transfer budget. The majority of that was spent on £2m acquisition Emanuel Villa, who was parachuted in from Estudiantes alongside £1.5m purchase Robbie Savage. The former scored three goals in two draws that dragged Derby to a double-figure points total; the latter was immediately appointed captain, won his first game for the club in January 2009 and took a pay cut to move to Pride Park after annoying Roy Keane with his answerphone message.
The rest of the Derby incomings assigned to the sinking ship were an eclectic bunch dripping in either 1990s energy or early 2000s vibes: Alan Stubbs, Laurent Robert, Danny Mills, Hossam Ghaly and Roy Carroll somehow contrived to make the team worse. Genclerbirligi forward Mile Sterjovski was the wildcard. Jewell unveiled him as “an international player with Champions League and World Cup experience” without mentioning that his five European Cup appearances all came in 2001 and produced a single victory in which he neither scored nor assisted, with that “World Cup experience” comprising three games in 2006, with him missing the only one Australia actually won at that year’s tournament. Derby had 21 points deducted this season and have already equalled their entire tally for the 2007/08 campaign. Just wait until Wayne Rooney brings in former teammate Stubbs.
7) Portsmouth (2005/06)
Signing four players from Tottenham in the space of 18 days does not ordinarily represent ambition but the deals littered around the additions of Noe Pamarot, Pedro Mendes, Sean Davis and Wayne Routledge were pure Harry Redknapp. He had only been appointed as Alain Perrin’s permanent replacement the previous month, which made the turnaround to bring in Emmanuel Olisadebe and Benjani Mwaruwari within a week of the window opening all the more impressive. The forwards joined from Panathinaikos and Auxerre but their Fratton Park fates would differ somewhat: one soon returned to Greece while the other was condemned to life as the subject of an embellished after dinner speech anecdote.
The best was absolutely saved until last – or at least after Dean Kiely and Ognjen Koroman were drafted in. Andres D’Alessandro was the perfect exotic signing: a mercurial short-term loanee with quicksilver feet who parlayed his new-found impetus to ignore permanent overtures and move elsewhere in the summer, with his solitary strike being a goal of the season contender in eventual defeat at Charlton. Portsmouth stayed up with half of their winter recruits contributing nothing and the rest being absolutely vital, with nothing in between. That’s a Redknapp.
6) Tottenham (2008/09)
One need only glance upon the names of the two trialists Tottenham took on and subsequently rejected in January 2009 to truly appreciate their approach of throwing enough sh*t at the transfer wall to see what would stick. Stephen Appiah and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie were unsuccessful in their attempts to secure permanent contracts at White Hart Lane, presumably because Daniel Levy had already stretched the wage bill beyond anything he had previously deemed comfortable.
Fans of a certain vintage will already have identified this as the famed ‘two points from eight games’ season in which Redknapp had to rescue Tottenham, pulling them from the relegation mire and in the vague direction of mid-table. He would likely have crowbarred the window open at the earliest opportunity regardless but a run of six winless games between December 13 and January 18 plunged Tottenham back down and level on points with 20th place. Jermain Defoe had already returned to north London by that stage, soon to be joined by Wilson Palacios, Carlo Cudicini, Pascal Chimbonda and Robbie Keane for a combined outlay of almost £40m. They ended up two points off Europa League qualification, which Redknapp will indeed remind you is precisely how many points they had when he was appointed.
5) Hull (2016/17)
As evidenced, January transfer window ambition does not always translate to success. Hull had no right to be in the survival conversation by the time 2017 rolled in, having spent a portion of that pre-season with as few as 13 senior players on their books. Marco Silva brought in almost as many in January alone to ignite an unlikely fight, albeit to no avail.
The most intriguing aspect of Hull’s hiring strategy was that it shunned the accepted wisdom of needing veterans experienced in the art of scrapping against relegation, instead placing hopes and dreams in the feet of Merseyside outcasts Oumar Niasse and Lazar Markovic. Evandro Goebel joined the ranks from Porto, as did Kamil Grosicki of Rennes. A late drive for loanees pulled in Olympiacos defender Omar Elabdellaoui, Villarreal’s Alfred ‘Curl Up’ N’Diaye and Andrea Ranocchia, the Inter Milan centre-half. Hull threatened to stay up when picking up five wins in 11 games, including victory over Liverpool and a draw at Old Trafford. But their campaign ended with three consecutive defeats at an aggregate score of 13-1 as Silva definitively proved what he knew about the Premier League: not as much as Gary Rowett.
4) Sunderland (2015/16)
The very nature of a list like this means it will be dominated by teams who were trying to stave off relegation. Such misery can often lead to paths less trodden and corners usually overlooked in search of a semblance of stimulation. Desperate times and all that. Sunderland springboarding to safety on the basis of permanent signings from Bayern Munich, Lorient and Bordeaux, accompanied by a Trabzonspor loanee, fits that bill perfectly.
Jan Kirchhoff was instantly atrocious before markedly improving. Lamine Kone seemed to be designed specifically for the Premier League before tailing off after an excellent first half-season. Wahbi Khazri both annoyed Martin Samuel and consequently made him look a fool, thus earning himself 427 bonus points. Dame N’Doye righted the wrongs of his relegation with Hull a year prior by contributing to Sunderland’s survival. His 15 games for the Tigers in 2014/15 were the only Premier League experience the Black Cats brought in that January – save for Steve Harper coming in, not playing a single game and subsequently retiring in the summer – as foreign exports proved more than satisfactory.
3) Crystal Palace (2016/17)
Sam Allardyce did largely go back to more tried and tested routes when next given the chance. One costly pint of not actually wine but it remains much funnier to say so separated his stints at Sunderland and Crystal Palace, where he was once again called upon to course-correct mid-season. This time it was the mess of Alan Pardew that he was asked to clear up, which is a fate no soul deserves to undertake.
Almost £30m was spent on Jeffrey Schlupp, Patrick van Aanholt and Luka Milivojevic, two of whom remain at Selhurst Park five years later, with the other having only just left last summer. Most impressive was the capture of Mamadou Sakho, coming at the end of protracted negotiations to extract him from Liverpool. The centre-half had been sacrificed by Jurgen Klopp and did not play a single competitive senior game from April 20, 2016 to his Palace debut on February 25, 2017, but it was a considerable coup. The Eagles won on five of his eight appearances to guarantee safety, before deciding to sign the Frenchman for £26m that summer.
2) Newcastle (2012/13)
There was a slight relegation fog that permeated the Tyneside air but nothing that necessitated immediate and drastic action. While Newcastle had flirted with Champions League qualification the previous season, by January 2013 their forecast was considerably less bright. The ink on eight-year contract extensions given to chief scout Graham Carr and manager Pardew had barely dried by the time they revisited the relatively untapped markets that had recently gifted them Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa. The Magpies headed back to the Ligue Un pool and picked up anything that could potentially shine, signing five players from the French league.
Mathieu Debuchy was first, before la révolution really set in. Over the space of two days, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Yoan Gouffran, Massadio Haidara and Moussa Sissoko all hopped the Channel for a combined £18m, soon to be sold for £50m altogether. Soccer Saturday fan Kevin Mbabu rounded off what proved to be more inspired and profitable business at St James’ Park.
1) Bolton (2001/02)
The kings of January ambition might always be Bolton. Allardyce would be no stranger to mid-season activity throughout his managerial career but he never reached the same heights of enterprise, enthusiasm and progression as 2002. The Trotters needed momentum to propel them out of a 12-game winless run that left them 18th in their debut season after First Division promotion. In the days before Nigel Quashie and Hermann Hreidarsson would jump between relegation battles, there was no real blueprint. So Allardyce devised his own unrepeatable plan geared towards survival.
Jeremy Bon, a free transfer from Bordeaux, reeled everyone in. It seemed as though Bolton would waste their chance. But then Euro 1996 winner and former Bundesliga top scorer Fredi Bobic strapped himself in for the ride, with Serie A conqueror Bruno Ngotty taking a seat alongside him. Gerald Forschelet came and went without a trace. Stig Tofting managed to regain his Denmark squad place for the 2002 World Cup. And then Youri Djorkaeff, reigning champion from the 1998 tournament, took up the mantle of leading man. Bolton had called upon ripened brilliance from Marseille, Hamburg, Kaiserslautern and Borussia Dortmund to rescue them, correctly banking on players well beyond their peak ages rising to a fresh challenge. They stayed up by four points; a gloating Allardyce has never laughed so heartily outside of touchline confrontations with Chico Flores.