Football: Bolton seek a second Mersey scalp: Phil Shaw believes the bad weather will prove a great leveller in today's FA Cup third-round ties

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The Independent Online
THE ANNUAL collision of footballing cultures that is the third round of the FA Cup invariably produces some high-ranking casualties, and more than a few managers must have watched aghast as rain and snow continued to fall.

Conditions, to adapt an old Cup cliche, are a great leveller. Nottingham Forest almost went out on a skating rink of a surface at Tooting and Mitcham, of all places, on their way to Wembley in 1959. Three decades on, Tottenham lost at Port Vale on a ground which looked as if it had just staged the Horse of the Year Show.

Unfortunately for many would- be giant-killers, there is a thin line between a watery grave and an unplayable pitch. With that in mind, Exeter dressed Danny Bailey in Red Indian costume yesterday and persuaded the midfielder to perform a ceremonial sun dance at soggy St James Park, where Aston Villa are due. Whether the gods warmed to Exeter's enterprise will be clear after one of the many inspections this morning.

Wycombe Wanderers, hoping to catch Norwich off guard after their week of turmoil over Mike Walker, opted for more modern methods. They hired a machine to blow-dry Adams Park, though there should be enough hot air from the East Anglian contingent over the loss of their manager to ensure play.

By 4.45pm, Walker may have wished he had delayed his defection until Monday. Of all the Premiership sides facing supposedly humbler brethren, Everton look most vulnerable at Bolton. All the ingredients are in place: Bruce Rioch's team put Liverpool out a year ago, have lost once in 17 games, and possess a potential match-winner, the playmaker Tony Kelly, who is a fanatical Evertonian.

Liverpool, whose tie at Bristol City is on despite the deluge in the West, also meet upwardly mobile First Division opponents. On a sapping pitch, the outcome may hinge on how much the frenzied work Graeme Souness's side put into Tuesday's fightback against Manchester United took out of them.

Other Premiership clubs at risk include Queen's Park Rangers at Stockport, who have not reached the fourth round since 1965 but boast nine wins in 11 at home; Southampton, for whom anything less than victory over Port Vale may push Ian Branfoot to the brink; Manchester City, against a Leicester team keen to show they have learned from autumn's 5-1 League Cup drubbing at Old Trafford; and Oldham, hosts to in-form Derby.

The holders, Arsenal, do not play until Monday, at Millwall. The 4-1 favourites, Manchester United, should carry sufficient class and power tomorrow to avenge last year's fifth-round exit at Sheffield United.

Among those facing hiding-to- nothing games are Leeds, where Crewe may pit 16-year-old Danny Murphy against Gordon Strachan, 37 next month. One of the Third Division leaders' supporters wrote to the local paper complaining about ticket prices for Elland Road. Another replied that while pounds 14 was indeed a lot to pay to see Leeds, it was a snip to watch Crewe.

Ticket sales are also a sore point at Peterborough, whose chairman- manager, Chris Turner, is annoyed that Tottenham's visit is 2,000 short of a sell-out. A Posh victory, unlikely as it seems, would leave Spurs' season resting on Wednesday's League Cup quarter-final with Villa.

At Hillsborough, two others still involved in the secondary competition, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest, contest what could prove the most exciting tie. Des Walker versus Stan Collymore may also be the duel of the day.

The odds are against the four non-League survivors, though none should be embarrassed. Bromsgrove, who have 37-year-old Ron Green in goal after his Christmas arrival from Happy Valley of Hong Kong, are at least at home, a not insurmountable task against Barnsley.

Meanwhile, a derby atmosphere, a big following and the instability created by Barry Fry's staff turnover may conspire in Kidderminster's favour at Birmingham. Again it is a tie tailor-made for a shock, with the Vauxhall Conference leaders managed by a lifelong Blues fan, Graham Allner.

Fry recalled this week that when he first discussed the Birmingham job with David Sullivan, the owner mentioned the Kidderminster game as guaranteeing a good gate and a fourth-round place. Injudicious words, which may yet stick like mud on a goalkeeper's jersey.

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