Football: Ready for the agony and the ecstasy

Guy Hodgson on the six clubs going for glory in the last-chance saloon
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The Independent Online
Ossie Ardiles summed up the feelings of a team who go to Wembley in search of promotion via the play-offs when his West Bromwich Albion side were beaten in 1993. "It looks a wonderful, wonderful place, the best in the world when you win," he said. "But when you lose it looks dirty and empty."

Six clubs will look at the twin towers over the next three days. By Monday night three will be promoted, while three will taste the bitterness of being close but not close enough.

Any system that allows a team who finished sixth or seventh to go up instead of opponents who were four places ahead of them is grossly unfair, but you cannot fault the play-offs for their popularity. Record crowds are anticipated at Wembley, beating the 158,566 set at the end of the 1993-94 season.

The highlight comes on Monday, when a 75,000 sell-out is expected for the First Division final between Sheffield United and Crystal Palace, who are to make Steve Coppell their permanent manager next season win or lose. Even though defeat would cost Palace pounds 6m in lost revenue, Coppell's caretaker role is to be upgraded.

Today it is the turn of Swansea City and Northampton Town to take centre stage for the Third Division final. Swansea won both games between the two sides this season, but the Northampton captain, Ray Warburton, remains confident.

"I think it will be a fair old game," he said. "It will be very tight and maybe just one goal will be enough. Wembley is supposed to be a very tiring pitch so it'll be the fitter side that will come out on top in the later stages. Hopefully that will be us."

Northampton will have the backing of around 35,000 of their fans. Warburton said: "On a lot of away trips this season we've taken 600 to places like Carlisle and Hartlepool on a Tuesday night, so we hope they all have a good day because they thoroughly deserve it. They've been the best in the division for the last three or four years since I've been here."

Crewe Alexandra will not have so many behind them tomorrow against Brentford, but if anyone knows that reaching the play-offs is a twin-edged sword then it is their manager, Dario Gradi. This will be the third successive year that Alex have tried to reach the First Division through the play- offs

Their record is five appearances in the play-off lottery in six seasons without one promotion. In 1994 they did advance, but only because they finished high enough to go up automatically. "We need all the team to perform," Gradi said. "We cannot carry anyone."

Crewe recorded a double over Brentford this season, although Gradi knows that means little. Their only selection problem is midfielder Danny Murphy, who has a thigh injury. "Our plans will revolve around his fitness," Gradi said.

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