Football: An afternoon of dreams and screams

Norman Fox sets the scene for the final do-or-die games of the First Division
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NOTTINGHAM FOREST, already promoted, have the experience and perhaps the team to defy the odds and secure their long term future in the Premiership. What of the rest? Paul Gascoigne says, provocatively, that there is a lot of dross in the First Division. Harsh, but probably true. Even so, the chance to live with the rich, if only on a short let, is a seductive enticement for seven teams this afternoon while some once great clubs face Second Division tenancy.

This bitter-sweet afternoon will answer the remaining questions about automatic promotion and the last play-off place but leave a lot unanswered about the ability of the successful ones to establish themselves in the only division offering serious money. But this is also an afternoon when the faint-hearted will fall away.

Can Manchester City really let down what is surely the largest, most loyal bunch of put-upon fans and be relegated? When the chairman, Francis Lee, began to treat these remarkable supporters with contempt some even began to say relegation was what the club deserved. But Stoke City, their similarly threatened opponents from the Potteries, had their feet in the clay when losing 3-0 at Sunderland last weekend and may have lost the psychological impetus for a final struggle. But what a clash in prospect and what irony if Manchester City were to win and Portsmouth lose or draw at Bradford. Alan Ball, the Pompey manager, could watch his present club go down and his old one stay up.

The tension at the top of the First Division seemed to ease a fraction for Middlesbrough on Tuesday when their neighbours at Sunderland lost to Ipswich. That left Boro needing a win over Wolves on Wednesday and only one more point against Oxford today to join Forest in automatic promotion. Seemingly no problem for a side on a run of nine successive home wins. But the defence went to pieces early on and Wolves took a draw.However, with Oxford not involved in anything but reinforcing their presentable position, clearly the odds are still in favour of Boro to deny Sunderland and Charlton Athletic the second automatic promotion place.

Yet even the chance to get in sight of the Premiership so soon after being on the point of closure is a remarkable achievement for Charlton and their hard-working manager, Alan Curbishley. Charlton and Sunderland are level on points. Of the two, Charlton have the more difficult task today since a visit to Birmingham City brings them up against a team themselves standing only a point outside the play-off zone.

The play-offs would hold no fears for Curbishley. "The way we have been playing this season, I don't think any of the others would relish meeting us," he said of the club he believes has "made itself ready off the field, as well as on, to go into the Premiership". The Valley will soon have a second tier on top of the main stand. With gates now up to capacity, the extra space is badly needed. Thousands of new homes are being built in the area, and there is a lot of optimism about the place.

Birmingham's Trevor Francis reckons his team have been playing well enough to reach the play-offs and would have been in a stronger position "if all the others above us had been a bit less consistent". Sheffield United defied that consistency and emphasised the feeling that Ipswich are the best of the play-off four when they only drew with Tranmere on Tuesday and lost at Crewe on Thursday. A drained team go to Stockport knowing that they have not won away from home since the beginning of November. Stockport have lost only three times at home.

The top seven

P W D L F A Pts

Nottm Forest 45 28 9 8 81 41 93

Middlesbrough 45 26 10 9 73 40 88

Sunderland 45 25 12 8 84 49 87

Charlton 45 26 9 10 80 49 87

Ipswich 45 22 14 9 74 41 80

Sheff Utd 45 19 17 9 69 53 74

Birmingham 45 19 16 10 60 35 73

The bottom five

P W D L F A Pts

Port Vale 45 12 10 23 52 66 46

Portsmouth 45 12 10 23 48 62 46

Stoke 45 11 13 21 42 69 46

Man City 45 11 12 22 51 55 45

Reading 45 11 9 25 39 77 42