Football: Oldham must conquer bogy men: Phil Shaw charts the tension of the season's last weekend

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The Independent Online
RADIO earpieces, teletext pagers, calculators and sedatives at the ready: the last weekend of the regular season is upon us. And from Highbury to Halifax, fans of the sizeable number of clubs whose fate remains unresolved will be expecting - in many cases hoping - to witness the highly irregular.

For this is the time, especially since the advent of three points for a win, when teams who were lost causes a fortnight earlier unexpectedly flourish; and those who had seemed secure at one end of the table or the other suddenly find 10 months' work undone by 10 minutes' weakness.

The bottom of the Premier League offers a perfect example. Oldham, apparently doomed a week ago, have since beaten Aston Villa and Liverpool to revive their hopes of staying up. Crystal Palace and, to a lesser extent, Ipswich, who looked safe, still need a point today to be mathematically certain.

Palace close at Arsenal - not the tallest order, one might think, with their hosts' minds on the FA Cup final. But Palace, whose chairman Ron Noades may stay away because of the tension, have lost their six most recent encounters with the Gunners and failed to beat them in 12 games since 1979.

Such statistics will hearten Oldham as they take on Southampton, themselves a bogy side to the Boundary Park team. But Oldham have not come out on top in six meetings, and must find a way past Tim Flowers in a week when he has gained England recognition.

Nottingham Forest's visit to Ipswich will be Brian Clough's swan- song, barring a reserve match next Wednesday. So the top flight will have a new longest-serving manager tonight - but will it be Joe Royle, of Oldham, or Palace's Steve Coppell?

Meanwhile, Football League clubs will today feel the full impact of their bold decision to reward the higher scorers in the event of two teams finishing level on points. It could well decide whether West Ham or Portsmouth rise from the First Division, with Pompey only one goal behind.

The new rule alone may not be enough to sort out the dogfight at the foot of the First, where seven teams with similar tallies are playing to avoid two places. With four of them meeting in six-pointers, 23rd-placed Birmingham could actually escape the bottom six by beating Charlton.

In contrast with the Premier League, three recently appointed managers - Barry Fry (Southend), Mick Walker (Notts County) and Terry Butcher (Sunderland) - are all caught up in the mad scramble.

In the Second Division, two old clubs meet at Burnden Park, where Bolton and Preston need victory for different reasons. Bolton, 15 wins in their last 18 games, are favourites.

Oldham is not the only Pennine town seeking salvation. After 72 years in the lower divisions, Halifax will go out of the League, and possibly out of existence, unless results go their way today. They have a fighting chance: Northampton, the only other candidates for the Vauxhall Conference, visit Shrewsbury, who require three points to make the play-offs.

In such fraught circumstances, the last-day ritual of supporters turning up in fancy dress has done well to survive. One of today's strangest sights will be that of myriad Elvis Presley lookalikes among Port Vale's following at Blackpool, a wheeze inspired by the adoption of 'The Wonder of You' as the club anthem.

At Bloomfield Road and beyond, as the clocks move past 4.30, 'It's Now or Never' might sound rather more appropriate.

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