Football: Renaissance clubs ready for leap forward

Sunderland, revitalised by moving to a new stadium, and Fulham, thriving on an influx of new money, could clinch promotion tonight. By Phil Shaw
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The Independent Online
PETER REID and Kevin Keegan never tangled in Merseyside derbies, were only briefly managerial rivals in the North-east and are not, strictly speaking, in competition now. But as Sunderland and Fulham put the champagne on ice for possible celebrations tonight - when the first promotion and relegation issues could be resolved - the pair with the steely competitive streak and hair to match are vying for a place in the record books.

Since the Football League adopted three points for a win in 1981, only York, amassing 101 points in 1983-84, and Swindon, who went one better in 1985-86, have compiled a century. Beginning at relegation-threatened Bury this evening, Reid's Sunderland side need 11 points from five First Division fixtures to establish a new landmark.

Even then, the record may end up beside the Thames rather than the Wear. Fulham receive Gillingham - contenders to follow the London club up from the Second Division - requiring the comparatively small matter of 13 points from seven games to overtake Swindon.

But records, like Keegan's England duties, can wait. First priority for both clubs is to confirm promotion - and they can do it tonight. A Sunderland success at Gigg Lane would put them beyond the reach of all but Ipswich. In the event of third-placed Bradford failing to win at Port Vale in another bottom-versus-top collision, a draw would suffice.

Fulham will be uncatchable should they overcome Gillingham or if Preston, fading in third spot, do not win at Wigan. For Reid and Keegan, who each endured bitter anticlimax in the play-offs last May, the night promises a moment to savour before planning for life at a higher level.

Therein lies the rub. To some clubs, promotion is an end in itself: Barnsley's elevation to the Premiership, followed the next spring by demotion, offers a classic example. Sunderland and Fulham, though separated by a chasm in the size of their respective followings, are twinned by the extent to which they have sent expectations soaring.

In Sunderland's case the catalyst has been a change of home, from Roker Park to the Stadium of Light, which will surely house 40,000 and more at every Premiership match. The grey area concerns Sunderland's ability to survive longer than one season (which they failed to do after two previous promotions in the 1990s), and to match neighbouring Newcastle by maintaining their momentum among the elite.

To do that, Reid may not only have to be ruthless in dispensing with some who have served him well but also venture unprecedented sums in the transfer market. After Sunderland's last First Division title, in 1996, he spent sparingly with predictable consequences.

Lee Clark, one of several shrewd recruits in the interim and a member of the Newcastle side Keegan brought up in 1993, argues that Sunderland "could easily challenge for a top 10 place" (which they last achieved in 1955) if they were to make "three or four top-class signings". While Reid already has a Danish midfielder, Carsten Fredgaard, arriving for pounds 1.8m in July, he will have to lay out several times that amount to attract the personnel who will enable them to prosper.

For all their need of proven Premiership performers, Sunderland are better equipped than when they last finished as champions. Thomas Sorensen has kept 27 of their 28 clean sheets and shares Peter Schmeichel's agility and presence as well as his nationality. Kevin Phillips has scored 53 goals in two seasons, despite losing three months to injury, and can hardly fail to improve upon the four goals that made Paul Stewart and Craig Russell joint top scorers in 1996-97.

If Sunderland are kept waiting tonight, they have another opportunity at Barnsley on Friday. Whenever it happens, their outstanding home fixtures, against Sheffield United and Birmingham, are certain to be played in a carnival atmosphere.

Craven Cottage, as cosy and scenic as the Stadium of Light is brash and modern, has staged few enough parties down the decades. Gillingham's urgent need for points will ensure a fierce contest, yet with three more home games to come, Fulham and the faithful (now reputedly including Pope John Paul II and Michael Jackson) can afford to be patient.

The impetus for their long-overdue renaissance has, of course, come from the chequebook of Mohamed Al Fayed. Eyebrows were raised when Chris Coleman became the first pounds 2m player in the history of the English game's third grade, but the restlessness that characterises Keegan and the Harrod's owner suggests that Fulham are in for a summer of unsentimental squad- pruning and even greater investment.

Early in his reign, the "chief operating officer" was informed by a fan that million-pound players were not welcome. Tonight, when the attendance should approach the 20,000 mark Keegan sought as proof that Fulham could generate passion, dissenters will be like the paying customers were before he and Al Fayed came together: few and far between.

THE NATIONWIDE RUNAWAY LEADERS

FIRST DIVISION

P W D L F A Pts

Sunderland 41 27 11 3 80 24 92

Ipswich 41 24 8 9 63 26 80

Bradford 41 24 7 10 73 40 79

Birmingham 41 20 12 9 61 33 72

Wolves 41 18 13 10 59 38 67

Bolton 40 17 14 9 69 54 65

SECOND DIVISION

P W D L F A Pts

Fulham 39 28 6 5 66 26 90

Walsall 39 22 8 9 54 41 74

Preston NE 40 21 10 9 71 40 73

Man City 41 19 15 7 58 29 72

Gillingham 40 19 14 7 65 36 71

Bournemouth 40 20 10 10 61 38 70

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