Football: Loyal servants rewarded with well-earned rise: The final Saturday of the season brings delight and despair in almost equal parts. Phil Shaw reports

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The Independent Online
ON A DAY when the three longest- serving managers in the English game all changed divisions, John Rudge and Dario Gradi had rather more reasons to be cheerful than Joe Royle.

It will be scant consolation to the Oldham manager, whose team never overcame the blow of a desperately late Manchester United equaliser in the FA Cup semi-final, but Rudge and Gradi have proved that recovery from similarly shattering Wembley setbacks is possible.

Rudge's Port Vale, who lost the Second Division play-off final to West Bromwich Albion last May after failing to secure automatic promotion with 89 points, treated 5,400 Potteries revellers to a 3-1 win at Brighton to make sure of runners-up spot behind Reading. Gradi's Crewe, beaten on penalties in the Third Division play-off final, sealed third place with a 2-1 victory at promoted Chester.

Vale's achievement was all the more impressive considering that their playmaker-captain, Ray Walker, missed the entire campaign, and that they were not awarded a penalty all season. They have qualified for Europe - a friendly against Genoa on Wednesday - as well as lucrative derbies with Stoke et al.

Success brings its own problems, however, with Rudge and his pounds 1m- rated midfielder, Ian Taylor, now out of contract. Rudge's quietly effective style has generated interest elsewhere, but even if he stays he may have to sell Taylor to fund team- strengthening for the higher level.

Peter Shilton's Plymouth look equipped to prosper in the play-offs following an 8-1 romp at Hartlepool, which equalled a 62-year-old club record. In the semi-finals, they face Burnley, whose vulnerability away from home was underlined by a 4-1 reverse at relegated Exeter. Stockport, seemingly drained after a congested run-in, will relish eight days' break before tackling York.

No such second chance awaits Fulham, whose 2-1 defeat at Swansea gives them a three-month interlude for relegation to the League's lowest section to sink in. When Fulham fell out of the old First Division in 1968, they took down the flags of its member clubs which adorned the Thames side but did not replace them because they were confident of a prompt return. As things have turned out, the lowering of standards was highly symbolic.

Craven Cottage thus becomes the Third Division's most scenic setting, Fulham's fate being sealed on the day Wimbledon - traditionally a distant third behind them and Chelsea in the local hierarchy - equalled their best Premiership finish.

As for Jimmy Hill, who promised 'happy days are here again' when he became chairman in 1987, his verdict on his own part in Fulham's fall would be fascinating to hear. Six weeks ago, with the team two places and two points clear of the relegation zone, The Chin elbowed the manager, Don Mackay.

The demise of Fulham was good news for another erstwhile top-flight club, Blackpool, who ensured safety by trouncing Leyton Orient 4-1. Blackpool are to rebuild Bloomfield Road and may play at Highbury in the meantime - the home of neighbouring Fleetwood, that is.

In the Third, Wycombe had to settle for a play-off place a year after winning the Vauxhall Conference following a 1-1 draw with Preston, who have also qualified. Carlisle and Torquay, 18th and 19th respectively last season, complete the promotion-seeking quartet.

Their rise should encourage Northampton, who finished bottom against a backdrop of crowd trouble at Chesterfield but look likely to survive due to the League's intransigence over Kidderminster.

Even better role models would be Chester, whom Graham Barrow has led back up 12 months after they finished a poor last in the Second, or Fred Davies's Shrewsbury, champions despite trailing Crewe by eight points in February.