Bottom clubs prepare for shoot-out at the KO corral

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The Independent Online
With a fortnight to go in the season, the particular agonies of promotion and relegation will be gripping sides throughout the Nationwide League this weekend, but nowhere will the pressure be more intense than at the foot of the Third Division.

There six clubs are teetering over the abyss that separates them from non-League football, knowing that by next Saturday one of them will disappear into the GM Vauxhall Conference.

Brighton are currently three points adrift in bottom spot, but Hereford, Hartlepool, Exeter, Doncaster or Darlington could swap places with them yet. With Brighton scheduled to visit second-from-bottom Hereford on the final day, a nerve-jangling denouement appears likely.

Provided Brighton get at least as many points from their home game against Doncaster this afternoon as Hereford manage at Leyton Orient, the relegation issue will rest on the outcome of that match. And this year, unlike the previous three, the League's 92nd club stands no chance of a reprieve on the grounds that the Conference champions' stadium is not up to standard.

Although next Saturday's fixture has captivated both sets of supporters - a sell-out crowd of 8,500 is virtually assured - the Hereford director of football, Graham Turner, is somewhat less enthralled. "Even over the last few weeks when we have slipped to second from bottom, I thought and hoped that everything would be settled beforehand and it wouldn't be significant," he said. "But it looks more and more likely that it will be vital for both of us."

Brighton have never won a League match at Edgar Street and their away record this season - one win and only 11 goals in 22 matches - is unrivalled for sheer awfulness. Turner, however, attaches little importance to such statistics. "I think the fear factor will be decisive," he said. "Whichever side alleviates it will do better. It's up to our experienced players like John Williams and Tony Agana to help us, but even they're getting edgy."

Both sides should also prepare for the unexpected. In 1987, Torquay were saved from demotion when a police dog bit one of their players. During the time added on for the stoppage, Paul Dobson scrambled a goal which sent Lincoln down instead.

The tight finish to this season had seemed implausible at the turn of the year. Brighton, plagued by turmoil and deprived of two points by the indiscretions of their own supporters, trailed Hereford by seven points on 1 January, having played a game more.

Now, thanks to Gritt and sheer determination, Brighton's destiny is in their own hands. Steve Gritt, the manager, has hauled a doomed side back from the brink. If they win their two remaining games it is likely they will survive for another season of League football.

This season's struggle has been a novel and unpleasant experience for Turner, whose previous appointments at Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton and Aston Villa were peppered with promotions and championships. The anguish has been all the greater given that he guided Hereford to the Third Division play-offs last year.

"Nothing I've done in 19 years as a manager prepared me for what I'm feeling at the moment," he said. "This is a totally new experience and one I could do without. People talk about pressure when you're chasing championships but it pales into insignificance compared to being near the bottom of the Third Division.

"Even bring relegated from the First or Second Division can't compare. At least then you maintain your League status and continue to play against similar clubs. Finishing bottom of the Football League means dropping into the unknown. It's a massive blow."

The experience of the five teams who have been demoted since 1987 indicates that loss of League status is not necessarily a one-way ticket to oblivion. Although Newport have folded and Halifax currently languish in the lower reaches of the Conference, Lincoln, Darlington and Colchester have returned stronger from their brief non-League sojourns.

"Any team that can maintain a full-time squad has a good chance," Turner said. "But we haven't given that a moment's thought yet. We've got the next two games to get through first."

Turner acknowledges that Hereford will be the most likely victims of Brighton's revival, but remains confident. "It's certainly in our favour that Orient have nothing to play for against us today whereas Brighton have Doncaster, who aren't definitely out of trouble themselves."

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