Football: Branfoot has the pedigree to lift Fulham from their trough: Third Division

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IN THIS World Cup summer, it seems both timely and sad to note that the one London venue at which Pele played, Craven Cottage, will for the next 10 months at least host its most unfamiliar set of visitors since Widnes and Wakefield Trinity a decade ago.

A quarter-century after contesting points with Manchester United and Arsenal, Fulham have hit the bottom division and their long-suffering support can be excused if they greet the appointment of a new manager with the scepticism many directed towards rugby league. What makes Jimmy Hill, who promised better times when he became chairman, think Ian Branfoot can fare any better than he did before he was hounded out of Southampton?

The answer lies in Branfoot's record at the lower levels, especially with Reading, who he led from the Fourth to the Second in the 1980s. Among the one-time Saints who will attempt to stop Fulham's slide are Mickey Adams, Kevin Moore and Terry Hurlock, the latter's recruitment indicating that the club of Johnny Haynes do not intend to stand on ceremony.

Under a former Fulham player, John Beck, Preston tried to power their way up last season, only to succumb to Wycombe's superior skills in the play-off final. They are sure to mount another challenge; the chances of its being fruitful are likely to turn on how they cope with the transfer of their principal scorer, Tony Ellis, and with the strange green stuff that has replaced the Deepdale plastic.

Walsall have missed out narrowly in recent campaigns, a frustrating situation but no mean feat considering the estimable Kenny Hibbitt has had buttons to spend. His latest free-transfer acquisition, Notts County's Kevin Wilson, may tip the balance. The former Northern Ireland forward will ease the coaching burden and provide the know-how necessary to exploit the ability of Charlie Ntamark, Martyn O'Connor and Chris Marsh.

Expect concerted challenges, too, from Torquay and Carlisle, the beaten play-off semi-finalists, as well as from Rochdale, Chesterfield, Scunthorpe and Mansfield, with Hereford looking to the striking wiles of the veteran Nicky Cross to inspire an overdue surge out of the danger zone.

Talking of which, last season's bottom club, Northampton, preserved their status ostensibly because Kidderminster, the Vauxhall Conference champions, had failed to meet a 31 December deadline for ground improvements. Ironically, the Worcestershire club's 1,000- seat stand is scheduled to open a fortnight tomorrow - two months before Northampton vacate their three- sided hovel for the new Sixfields stadium.

The Cobblers could be in luck again. Although they do not appear conspicuously strengthened, Wigan and Darlington have no new ground to provide fresh impetus and look set for another season of struggle. Barnet seem to be stabilising under Ray Clemence, but their companions-in-penury, Hartlepool, will do well to avoid crashing straight through from the Second into non- League football.