Football: Ardiles in hot pursuit of his vision: As the Premier League rests, Phil Shaw looks at the weekend's Barclays League fixtures

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The Independent Online
A MORE conceited manager than Ossie Ardiles, or indeed a more quip-conscious one, would point to the Football League tables this morning and claim that he had teams on top of both the First and Second Divisions.

Newcastle, where Kevin Keegan has taken the nucleus left by Ardiles and transformed them into Britain's only 100 per cent side, face Tranmere today in a match where the capacity crowd of 30,000 would probably have been the highest anywhere even if the Premier League had been in action.

West Bromwich Albion, who brought the Argentinian from black-and-white country to the Black Country after his sacking, are enjoying a similar renaissance style-wise and turnstile-wise. Albion expect their best attendance this season, upwards of 17,000, for the visit of Port Vale.

Chasing a sixth successive home win, Albion have reached the summit playing the kind of football their followers came to expect under Johnny Giles and Ron Atkinson. Adhering to such purist principles on a shoestring at Newcastle arguably cost Ardiles his job. There are clearly regrets, but no resentment over Keegan's early success.

Indeed, Ardiles admits his successor's personality and local status may have been better suited to Newcastle's circumstances. 'Sir John Hall (chairman) is the man with the power, and maybe he did the right thing,' he said. 'If I'd stayed I don't know if I'd have been able to secure the resources Kevin has. I'd have liked to have some of the money he has been given for players. I didn't, so that's it.

'Kevin is also extremely positive about everything. He never says, 'Maybe we'll lose this game'. A lot of people are surprised they have won nine in a row, but Newcastle always had that kind of potential.'

Potential - in the shape of prodigies like Lee Clark and Stephen Watson, and the vast support yearning for success - was practically all Newcastle had in Ardiles's time. The problems were encapsulated in one Zenith Cup tie, ironically against Tranmere.

'It was a 6-6 draw,' Ardiles recalled. 'Our goals were beautiful, theirs weren't. We were playing good football but with too many youngsters. But the crowd never turned on me, and I'm very pleased for them. Newcastle could be as big as Manchester United, Liverpool or any club in the country.'

His vision for Albion is less grandiose. 'I'd like us to be like Nottingham Forest,' he said, the comparison being with Brian Clough's way of playing rather than his team's current position.

Two of the weekend's most attractive fixtures will be staged tomorrow - resurgent Derby, fresh from a 7-0 spree against Southend, at home to Oxford in a sort of Maxwell Memorial Match, and West Ham against Sunderland, whose fans must be viewing Newcastle's revival with dismay.

What price the big North-eastern derby between Sunderland and Hartlepool next season? Hartlepool, fourth in the Second (nee Third), today visit Bolton, where they have seldom played but never lost. Second-placed Leyton Orient go to Stoke, scene of West Brom's first defeat in a seven-goal epic, while Blackpool and Preston contest a derby rich in memories of Matthews and Finney if short of modern-day magic.

Athleticism rather than artistry is the watchword now. Some clubs take it literally: Reading, away to Huddersfield, have enlisted the former Olympic sprint champion Alan Wells as 'speed coach', and would doubtless see a fifth consecutive win as vindication of their methods.

In the Third, Cardiff (fifth) go to Crewe (fourth), who could be mistaken for an Ardiles team and were worthy winners against West Ham in the Coca-Cola Cup. It is all happening at Gresty Road, once a mess of corrugated iron and cinder banking, which today sees the opening of a 650-seat Family Stand.