Football Commentary: Stein's strikes stoke the burning ambition of Macari

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EIGHTY-NINE points on the board, their nearest rivals seven adrift, and two of the last three games at home . . . only Group 4 Security could let promotion slip through their grasp from the position Stoke City are in.

Nearly 18,500 came to the Victoria Ground to see Stoke's 26th win in 43 Second Division matches, 1-0 over relegation-threatened Preston, but a dour encounter and victories for Bolton and local rivals Port Vale ensured that their celebrations were stifled.

Both challengers play tomorrow - Bolton at Bournemouth, Vale home to Mansfield - and if the Lancashire side fail to win, Lou Macari's men are up. The following night, when Peter Shilton returns to the Potteries with Plymouth, Stoke will be playing for the title.

Mark Stein, whose 32nd goal of the season overcame Preston, has done more than most to take them back to the brink of the status they surrendered in 1990. Yet the day after Stoke meet Plymouth, the South African- born striker will appear in court charged with assaulting a Stockport defender after a match last month.

The Stein family seem destined to tread a fine line between triumph and trauma. Mark's older brothers clinched promotion with Barnet on Saturday - Edwin as acting manager, Brian as a player - though due to shambolic administration under Stan Flashman's chairmanship the club are not certain to take their place in the Second next season.

Stoke, with debts of around pounds 2m, may encounter problems of their own in trying to bridge the chasm in quality between the divisions; of last season's promoted trio only Peterborough are not currently fighting the drop. The onus will be on Macari to find cut-price quality - just as he did with Stein.

Eighteen months ago, Stoke paid pounds 100,000 to rescue Stein from Oxford's reserves. He recently overhauled John Ritchie's post-war club record of 30 goals in a season, and again displayed his opportunism by running on to score with an angled drive from 18 yards after Richard Lucas had stumbled for a split second 35 yards out on the Preston left.

'Even on an off-day the little lad's done it for us,' Macari enthused. 'Mark has this court case coming up, which we're aggrieved about, and that's obviously been on his mind. He's also had a lot of racial abuse in the post, but all credit to him - he has kept doing the business.

'I turned down offers from Newcastle for him earlier this season. If we sold him we might as well shut up shop and go home.'

Preston's manager, John Beck, praised Stein's ratio of one goal from three chances while wishing his own front two had been as clinical during a first half shaded by Preston. The second period, he admitted, was a different story.

Beck believes Stoke will hold their own in the First. 'They're a very hard team to beat,' he said, stressing the importance of their collective effort. 'They play a very direct style and put the ball over the top to turn you.

'They've proved by their results that they're the best side in the division. We'd like their results but we'd want to play a bit more football than that. They hit it long all the time whereas we want to bring it down and get it to our wide men, which is our strength.'

Could this be the same Beck whose Cambridge side provoked such righteous indignation with their gamesmanship and long-ball brutalism? Once a creative midfielder himself, he appears to have undergone a welcome re-conversion, though his team still need two wins to avoid being relegated with their honourable intentions.

While Port Vale and West Brom have also impressed Beck, he positively drooled over Bolton's 'magnificent passing game'. All the contenders, except Vale, have a Stein: Albion's Bob Taylor equalled Jeff Astle's record of 35 against Wigan, but Bolton must tackle the run-in without the injured Andy Walker.

The intensity of the struggle is underlined by the fact that Stoke, with so many points, still have the champagne on ice. No wonder Second Division attendances are up by 14.2 per cent this season, contrary to the ill-informed gloom about falling gates in a Radio 5 discussion between assorted managers and pundits on Saturday.

Led by Newcastle, Stoke and Cardiff (who are promoted with Barnet), Barclays League crowds show an unprecedented seventh successive rise after breaking the 10m barrier at the weekend. For those left behind by the all-singing, all-grasping Premier League, they are heartening figures.

Goal: Stein (55) 1-0.

Stoke City: Fox; Butler, Sandford, Cranson, Overson, Gleghorn, Foley, Kevan, Stein, Shaw, Ware. Substitutes not used: Russell, Regis.

Preston North End: Farnworth; Callaghan, Lucas, Ainsworth, Kidd, Greenall, Cartwright (Tinkler, 54), Leonard, Watson, Burton, Ashcroft. Substitute not used: Flitcroft.

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).