Barnsley aim to bridge the ever-growing gap

Nationwide League

Seventeen years ago today the Sheffield derby attracted nearly 50,000 spectators to Hillsborough, a record for the former Third Division. How the Football League could use a comparable clamour at the turnstiles today.

More than two-thirds of its 72 clubs are showing a drop in support this season, with the average for the current Third (nee Fourth) Division down by almost 15 per cent. Set against a continuing upward trend in the Premiership, where crowds have increased by three per cent, the figures provide unhappy vindication for those who predicted a widening gulf between the haves and have nots.

The self-styled elite might not be too enamoured by the prospect of Barnsley, with their 9,000 average, lowering the tone at the top level a la Wimbledon. Danny Wilson's side enter the second half of their season a point ahead of Bolton with a game in hand. Despite their reputation as Stoke's bogey team, a visit to the Victoria Ground will certainly test their mettle.

Stoke, well placed to push for a play-off place again, will be boosted by the news that Mark Stein is to stay on loan from Chelsea for a second month. An England international will also pledge himself to them before kick-off, although Dominic Cork, who flies to join Mike Atherton's men in New Zealand early next year, is to be paraded as the latest recruit to the Potters' supporters club rather than beefing up the midfield.

The First Division's first 30,000 attendance of the season is expected at Maine Road, where Manchester City will have their work cut out to complete a double over Port Vale. City, who continue to be linked with the former Nottingham Forest manager Frank Clark, have won only twice in the last nine matches. Franny Lee is likely to monitor events from Barbados; a case, perhaps, of fiddling while home yearns.

Vale are proving a formidable counter-attacking side away from home, reflecting great credit on John Rudge's resourceful stewardship in a 13- year reign during which City have gone through nine full-time managers (not to mention "temps" like Phil Neal). Rudge may, however, be without his top scorer, lifelong City supporter Tony Naylor, who has a hamstring injury.

Another team faring better on their travels are Wolves. Remarkably, they have gained twice as many points away from Molineux, from one less game. That is hardly deterring the public from parting with their money. Three years ago next Saturday they began a run of 70 successive home gates of 20,000 or more. Their opponents that day, Oxford, are back in town this afternoon. With both clubs in the play-off zone, Wolves anticipate a turn- out in excess of 27,000 for the first time since the match against Leicester in February.

Bradford City, whose 85 per cent rise in crowds is easily the biggest in Britain, should be close to capacity for the bottom-versus-top meeting with Sheffield United. Bolton, down to second spot after eight games without a win, go to 24th-placed Grimsby in urgent need of points to go with the plaudits they are attracting.

Although no club in the Second Division boasts a five-figure average, attendances are nearly nine per cent up. The top two, Brentford and Luton, are both away today, giving Bury a chance to close the gap. A win over Crewe would keep alive the bizarre possibility of a club with fewer than 5,000 regular patrons swapping places with neighbouring Manchester City.

Fulham, Third Division leaders both at the gate and on the pitch, will expect to maintain their progress at Exeter's expense. Peter Shilton, who helped Leyton Orient draw nearly 8,000 last Sunday, may actually suffer a slight fall-off for Northampton's visit as their legendary goalkeeper plays League match No 1,001. While that figure is normally associated with spotless carpets, Shilton will settle for a clean sheet, his 334th.