Charlie and the Championship Talent Factory… Are lower league players back en vogue?

Charlie Austin Southampton

Approximately £21 million has been spent on Championship talent by Premier League teams so far this January transfer window – approaching 25% of the 20 teams’ total transfer spend.

The likes of Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli have shown there is talent to be found in England’s lower divisions, but who has made the leap this window, how will they fare in the top-flight, and who might be joining them?

Championship talent – January 2016 graduates

Sam Byram, West Ham – Undisclosed (Around £3.7 million)

Speculation about Sam Byram’s future had been rife since the 22-year-old defender decided against signing a new contract with Leeds United in the summer, and with just six months remaining on his former contract there was a degree of inevitability about his departure from Elland Road this window.

His destination wasn’t as clear cut. Everton looked to have won the race when they had a £3.7 million bid accepted, but West Ham, who had been hoping to sign the right-back on a free transfer in the summer, were forced into making a bid too. Despite reportedly offering less than Everton, they managed to convince Byram his future was brighter with the Hammers.

SEE ALSO: West Ham, Everton, Southampton and the Premier League’s new middle class

Despite coming as a bit of a surprise, his decision to move to Upton Park is difficult to argue with. Current Hammers right-back Carl Jenkinson is only on loan, whereas Everton have the established Seamus Coleman. First-team football opportunities look most likely in east London.

Byram made his first appearance 15 minutes into West Ham’s 2-2 draw with Manchester City last weekend after Jenkinson was forced off with an injury, and instantly looked at home in the Premier League.

His former club said:

Leeds assistant head coach Paul Raynor is in little doubt about the young defender’s potential to succeed in the top-flight:

“He’s a great lad, he was an ultimate professional and probably, bar the staff, he was first in and last out, doing his rehab, doing his work and doing his fitness sessions.

He has joined a fantastic club. I feel as though he will play a part there, they have sold him the dream that he will play a part moving forward and all we can say is good luck to Sam.”

Demarai Gray, Leicester City  – £3.75 million

Leicester saw a bid for Demarai Gray turned down by Birmingham City in the summer, but managed to capture the young winger at the second time of asking after meeting his £3.75 million release clause.

SEE ALSO: Hail the Outsiders – Can Leicester Or Tottenham spring a title surprise?

The 19-year-old had long been considered one of the brightest young talents outside of the Premier League, making close to 100 first-team appearances for the Blues. Whilst far from the finished article, Gray possesses raw talent that will excite his new fans; lightning pace, impressive dribbling skills and an eye for goal.

He made his debut for Leicester in their 2-2 draw with Tottenham in the FA Cup, and impressed by claiming an assist and looking lively throughout. There seems to be little question of his potential, but whether he is capable of making an impact in Leicester’s current bid for Champions League football remains to be seen.

His former club said:

His former manager Gary Rowett seems to think he will:

“He has certainly got the quality. I think he is going to have to add things to his game, which you would hope Leicester can do, the experience of someone like Claudio Ranieri would be able to add to his game.

“It’s going to be a tough challenge. He is an eye-catching player. If he starts games or if he comes off the bench for 20 minutes I am sure he can have a very big impact for them.”

Benik Afobe, Bournemouth – Undisclosed (Around £9 million)

Benik Afobe became the Cherries’ record signing when he made the switch from Wolves to Bournemouth two weeks ago, and has already made an impact by scoring his first goal for the club in the 3-0 win over Norwich, and his second to earn a draw at Sunderland last weekend.

SEE ALSO: Grading 14 England U21 players on their chances of wearing an England shirt again, including Benik Afobe

Afobe scored 23 goals in 48 appearances for Wolves, who reluctantly sold him just a year after signing him from his boyhood club Arsenal, where he failed to make a first-team appearance.

One of his old managers said:

Arsene Wenger was rather complimentary of the striker upon hearing of his move, and believes Afobe is a shrewd signing at £9 million:

“He has the qualities to integrate into a team like Bournemouth, whose game is based on movement, pace and quick football.

I believe it’s a normal price for a player who wants to play in the Premier League as a striker, it is not excessive. He has scored goals in the lower leagues and the risk is not massive considering Bournemouth will take advantage of the extra [TV] money that will come in at the end of the season.”

Afobe’s route to first-team Premier League striker will be reassuring for players struggling to break-though at top-flight sides. Dropping down a division to prove his worth has certainly not done the 22-year-old any harm.

Charlie Austin, Southampton – £4 million

£15 million was the figure quoted to Premier League sides who wanted to rescue Charlie Austin from relegated QPR in the summer. But just a few months later, and despite insisting he would stay with the Championship side until the end of the season, the former England international signed for Southampton for just £4 million.

SEE ALSO: Gems of the Lower Leagues: Charlie Austin

£4 million for a player who would have left at the end of the season might be in the best financial interests of QPR given that even Austin at the top his game would likely be insufficient to help the London side earn promotion. But that figure seems astonishing given what he achieved in his maiden Premier League campaign.

18 goals in a side that was relegated is no mean feat, and Austin already has his first Southampton goal – and his 11th of the season – after scoring the winner for his new side in the final minutes of their game against Manchester United.

Saints boss Ronald Koeman believes Austin can force his way into England’s Euro 2016 squad by scoring the goals to help Southampton climb the table:

“Charlie is very hungry because he likes to play at the highest level and that means the Premier League. He wants to develop, he’s still only 26-years-old and would like to come back into the national team. Players coming to Southampton know they develop and if they develop themselves and get game time they are involved in national teams.”

Are Championship players back en vogue?

There’s still over a week of the transfer window remaining, so we might not have seen the last of January’s Championship graduates. Here are four more Championship talents who could join them in the Premier League...

Moussa Dembele, Fulham

The young French forward has been in impressive form for Fulham so far this season and, alongside Ross McCormack, has caught the eye of a number of Premier League teams. Moussa Dembele is rumoured to be interested in joining Monaco, but could be set to join his namesake at Tottenham if Fulham can be convinced to sell.

Could join: Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool

Ademola Lookman, Charlton

Ademola Lookman was snapped up by Charlton Athletic after being spotted playing Sunday League football, and whilst he is still only 18 the striker has reportedly already caught the eye of the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City. With the current turmoil at the club, Charlton face an uphill battle to keep hold of the starlet.

Could join: Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal

Ahmed Elmohamady, Hull City

Ahmed Elmohamady has already proven himself in the Premier League with Hull City, but despite attracting plenty of attention over the summer the Egyptian opted to stay with the Yorkshire side despite relegation to the Championship. With only six months left on his contract it seems only a matter of time before the talented winger returns to the top-flight.

Could join: West Brom, Everton

Matt Phillips, Queens Park Rangers

Rumours of a Premier League move for Matt Phillips are nothing new, but with teammate Austin having been sold, top-flight sides might try their luck at snapping up the QPR midfielder before the window closes.

Could join: West Brom, Newcastle, Watford

How do you think this window’s Championship graduates will do in the Premier League? And which Championship talent do you think will, or should, join them? Let us know below, on our Facebook page or on Twitter @JustFootball.

(main image via Southampton FC on Twitter)

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