Football: Everton face exile against eager Wimbledon: Las Vegas beckons for the Crazy Gang should they hit the jackpot at Goodison while for others it is the last throw of the dice

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The Independent Online
ROGER BANNISTER and Bill Haley were rocking clocks the last time Everton experienced football outside England's foremost division. Premier life looks like ending 40 years on: Wimbledon, who have risen like record-breaking comets, descend on Goodison Park today determined to cast Everton down into the company of Wolves.

The Merseysiders' embarrassment is unequivocal. Goodison may have helped found the Football League, but, in the age of pounds and prestige, the Premier League is God. If Everton do fall - and they may yet be saved by Ipswich's inadequacies - an immediate return, in the manner of a rejuvenated Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest, will be difficult as only two clubs climb from the First Division to a shrinking Premiership next year.

Everton's crisis, and there is no other word, has been accentuated, even possibly caused, by boardroom inertia which has only recently eased. When Howard Kendall departed, Everton stood 11th but an unwillingness to appoint promptly a permanent successor undermined the players' confidence; a woeful run resulted, complete with 10-hour scoring drought, dragging the champions of 1987 down to 16th. Mike Walker's January arrival briefly lifted the staff, but a palsied board's inability to spend meaningful sums - notably pounds 1.5m on Manchester United's capable Dion Dublin - hampered Walker, whose season has disintegrated from Bayern towards Barnsley.

The one major investment, pounds 1.6m in Anders Limpar on deadline day, reeked of desperation. Gwladys Street, so patient in an age of terrace dissent, deserves better.

Wimbledon come to bury Everton, not to praise them, as so many have over the years. The Dons, hunting a best-ever fifth finish and a Sam Hammam-sponsored jolly to Las Vegas, are the worst doomsday opponents. Vinnie Jones, increasingly an anachronism in Wimbledon's positive line-up (particularly with a youngster of Stewart Castledine's promise seeking his displacement), has already questioned Everton's guts for the survival fight, uncharitable comments that the Goodison striker, Paul Rideout, expects 'will rally our lads'.

As usual, the complex end-of-season relegation equation will ensure fretful fans turn up armed with calculators and radios. Four other clubs join Everton in the increasingly claustrophobic contest to avoid the two, unfilled drop slots.

Oldham look down, although only a brave man would discount the revivalist powers of that shrewd old Evertonian, Joe Royle. The Latics' elasticity has surely been stretched too far this time: with only 41 hours' recovery time - the accepted miminum is 72 - Oldham traipse over to Norwich for their fourth assignment in eight days. 'The fatigue is mental as well as physical,' Royle said.

Oldham (39 points) and Everton (41) step out with most trepidation, although the trio clustered on 42 are hardly safe. Ipswich, in truth, would not be missed, their stale style a surprise coming from such purist quarters. Town's last task takes Mick McGiven's functional unit to Blackburn, hardly the ideal denouement. Sheffield United face a less daunting journey, to Chelsea while Southampton visit West Ham; both possess what the Saints' Alan Ball calls 'gutsy players', which may ensure a continued Premiership presence.

The buoyant Football League stages its share of intriguing finales. ITV, in its wisdom, televises two essentially meaningless games - the Palace coronation could have been taped - and misses a potential classic at Tranmere, where revitalised Birmingham, exhorted by a sizeable entourage, urgently require victory.

In the Second Division, success for Port Vale at Brighton will send John Rudge's men up behind Reading while, at the bottom, Fulham are in danger of dropping into the lowest division for the first time since 1932.

Finally, the noise abatement society will fight a losing battle around Old Trafford tomorrow. Manchester United will be re-presented with the Premiership pot before Bryan Robson, 36 but still a tigerish competitor, plays his final League game for the grateful Reds. United's current hegemony has its roots in Robson's boots.

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