Football: Play-off plan for Twickenham

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THE NATIONWIDE LEAGUE is set to approach the Rugby Football Union with a view to using Twickenham to stage the play-off finals, the Auto Windscreen Shield final and, possibly, the Worthington Cup final while Wembley Stadium is being rebuilt.

In the past, resistance from local residents and the lack of segregation at Twickenham have prevented the RFU from staging other events on their expensively rebuilt ground. The League now understand that, with the RFU looking to increase revenue, Twickenham may now be available under certain conditions. "The play-offs are less emotive than some of the fixtures that have been suggested in the past," Richard Scudamore, the League's chief executive, said yesterday, "and while we had been told it was not an option it may become one."

The leading alternatives are the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and Manchester United's Old Trafford ground. Twickenham is preferred for its London location but Cardiff is the favourite as the League would prefer to stage all five fixtures at the same ground, which may not be possible at Twickenham and Old Trafford. Wembley is due to go under the bulldozer next September.

Criticism about the way teams reach the play-off final has led to a tinkering of the system. From this season away goals will no longer count double, which should increase the advantage gained by the higher-finishing side, who always play the semi-final, second leg at home. For example, Ipswich would have reached Wembley last year instead of Bolton. Otherwise, said Scudamore, "we decided the current structure, though flawed, is as good as it can get."

The League will come into line with the Premiership in two areas this season: clubs will be able to field three substitutes from five; and players are to have squad numbers and names on their shirts. The potentially lucrative pay-per-view experiment, in which the Nationwide League is ahead of the Premiership, will continue, with eight to 15 matches being covered.

While income at all levels has improved, several clubs, notably Crystal Palace, Oxford, Portsmouth, Luton and Chester, endured financial crises last season. In a bid to prevent a recurrence, and to ensure greater financial regulation and transparency, clubs will be asked to provide twice-yearly reports detailing their fiscal condition and funding.

"People speculate, they always have," Scudamore said. "They think if we spend this we could get promotion. But out of 24 clubs in the First Division only three can go up and we don't want clubs struggling to fulfil their obligations."

The Nationwide League's latest manager was announced yesterday, but the name will be familiar, particularly in the Midlands. Brian Little, previously in charge at Wolves, Leicester, Aston Villa and Stoke, is the new manager of West Bromwich Albion. He succeeds Denis Smith, who was fired by the First Division club last month.

Little, who signed a two-year contract, said: "This is a challenge that really appeals to me."