football: Calculators and fireworks at the ready

expects nerves to be shredded in today's First Division finale
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THERE WILL, without doubt, be fireworks when the First Division season reaches its finale this afternoon. The players of Sunderland and Birmingham City will take the field at the Stadium of Light with pyrotechnics exploding all around them. They will depart with the home players clutching the championship trophy, and more likely than not a place in football history too. A draw would give Peter Reid's team outright ownership of the Football League points record - 102 - they now share with Lou Macari's Fourth Division Swindon side of 1985-86.

It is ownership of a Premiership place, however, that matters most to Reid, to his players, and to Sunderland's boom army of support - third behind Manchester United's and Liverpool's in terms of home numbers in England this season. Only now, as they bid farewell to the second-class First Division, are they reflecting upon the epic play-off final of 12 months ago with pain-free affection. For Michael Gray, the nightmare of trundling hisfateful penalty into the arms of Sasa Ilic has been replaced by the realised dreams of the England cap he collected 11 days ago, the championship medal he receives this afternoon and the Premiership future that awaits him. Sunderland's left-back, it can be safely assumed, would not wish the play-offs on anyone. But one of the teams who meet at Molineux this afternoon would be only too glad to experience them.

It is at Wolverhampton that the real First Division fireworks will ignite. Bradford City need to win to make certain of a place in the top division for the first time since 1922, the year Tutankhamun's treasures were unearthed in the Valley of the Kings. Otherwise, the men from the Valley of the Parade will be relying on Sheffield United to prevent Ipswich from taking three points at Portman Road. If Ipswich win, a draw will not be enough for Bradford, whose chairman, Geoffrey Richmond, has described the Molineux match as "the most important game in our entire history". "The good thing," he added, "is that, after 45 games, our fate is in our own hands."

The trouble is Wolves will be eager to claw the points from Bradford's grasp. The boys from the Black Countrywill be in the play-offs if they win and either Bolton Wanderers, who travel to Portsmouth, or Watford, who play Grimsby at Vicarage Road, fail to pick up three points. A draw would suffice if Bolton lost or if Watford lost and scored three fewer goals. "Realistically, we've got to win and hope Portsmouth or Grimsby do us a favour," Colin Lee manager of the Wolverhampton-based Wanderers, said.

It is not, of course, the first cut-throat final-day fixture Molineux has staged. Liverpool, courtesy of Kevin Keegan, John Toshack and Ray Kennedy, came from behind there with 15 minutes of the 1975-76 season remaining to win 3-1, lift the old First Division championship and send Wolves into the Second Division. Paul Jewell, an 11-year-old Liverpool fan at the time, will need no reminding of that historic occasion as he sends his team out to face 25,000 Wolves supporters. Bradford, with room for less than 3,000 of their own fans, have arranged a big-screen beam- back - with free admission - at Valley Parade.

There is every chance, of course, that Ipswich will rain on Bradford's parade. They have the advantages of a home fixture and opponents playing for nothing more than pride. Whether they exploit them, however, is another matter.

George Burley's boys have stuttered alarmingly of late, losing three of their last four matches and scoring just twice in five games. They have also suffered painfully in the play-offs in each of the past two seasons. "We've just got to be positive," Burley said. "We've got to go out to score goals. I won't be listening out for news from Molineux. The most important thing is that we win."

That Liverpool victory at Molineux 23 years ago denied Gerry Francis a championship medal as captain of Queen's Park Rangers. This afternoon, as manager, he needs a victory to stop the club slipping into the third- class division for the first time since their League Cup-winning season, 1966-67, when Francis was an apprentice. Only victory at home to Crystal Palace will guarantee Rangers safety. Otherwise, they have to hope that Bury do not achieve a better result at home to Port Vale and that, if they lose to Palace, Oxford fail to beat Stockport at the Manor Ground and gain four goals more than them in the process.

If QPR lose and Oxford gain three goals on them in victory, the clubs will be level on points and goals scored. The determining factor in that scenario would then be goal difference, in which Rangers enjoy (if that is the right word) an advantage: -15 to -28. Mathematics could even enter the equation in the fight for the second automatic promotion spot, which theoretically still involves Birmingham City.

St Andrew's would be on the Premiership map tonight if Bradford lost, Ipswich failed to win and Thomas Sorensen conceded at least 14 goals at the Stadium of Light (more if Bradford scored at Molineux).

The fact that Sunderland have leaked just nine League goals at home all season, however, puts the potential of that particular firework into true, damp-squib perspective.