Football: Robson takes lead in Premier passion play

Simon Turnbull fears final-day anguish is looming again for Peter Reid and his men again
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PETER REID'S promotion prospects have been dependent upon the misfortune of Bryan Robson before. Back in 1986 the shoulder dislocation suffered by England's Captain Marvel gave the eager Evertonian a place in England's World Cup team down Mexico way. This afternoon it would require a dislocation of Robson's side to open another vacancy for Reid. Unless Robson's Middlesbrough fail to beat Oxford United at the Riverside Stadium, Reid's Sunderland will have to take their promotion chances in the play- offs. "We'll just have to try to get three points ourselves at Swindon and see what happens," Reid said, contemplating D-Day in the First Division. "But it looks like I'll have to book my holidays a bit later this year."

For Reid and for Sunderland final-day disappointment is beckoning for a second successive season. Twelve months ago they were left down and out in London after their 1-0 defeat to Wimbledon at Selhurst Park and Coventry's 2-1 victory at White Hart Lane. It was a painfully drawn-out relegation. For 15 minutes after the final whistle the 15,000 Sunderland fans still had hope, ears clamped to commentary of the delayed match at Tottenham. But Steve Ogrizovic won his spurs in the Coventry goal. Sunderland were down. So were Middlesbrough, held to a 1-1 draw at Leeds. Juninho sank to the Elland Road turf in tears at the final whistle. Robson strode from the dug-out to console him.

In the aftermath Robson and Reid did some mutual consoling. Close friends since their England playing days, they have been known to compare notes in a wine bar on Teesside, where Reid has a flat. Sorrows were drowned together a year ago. "We haven't seen each other lately," Robson said on Friday. "But the last time we spoke we said we'd meet up for a drink at the end of the season. Hopefully we can both get into the Premiership so it'll be a more cheery drink than last year."

The possibility remains that the managerial neighbours will be swapping commiserations once again. Twelve months ago their teams both started the final day ahead of Coventry in the table; Sunderland by two points, Middlesbrough on goal difference. Today Charlton Athletic are on their heels, a point behind Boro and below Sunderland only on goals scored. Sunderland would secure automatic promotion if they won at Swindon and Middlesbrough drew, or if they drew, Boro lost and Charlton failed to win at Birmingham. A draw would be enough for Charlton, who have more goals than Middlesbrough, if their rivals both lost. Alan Curbishley would also be popping the champagne corks if his side won and Middlesbrough and Sunderland were both held to draws.

"I'll need a few more ulcer tablets," Robson said. "But it's going to be tense for everyone. It'll be the same for Peter Reid and for Alan Curbishley. But it's a great position for us to be in going into the last game. When we lost to Sheffield United a month ago we'd virtually resigned ourselves to the play-offs. I said then that we'd need six wins out of six but five out of six will do fine."

Boro's winning run was halted at the Riverside on Wednesday. For 20 minutes they were torn apart by Wolves. Had it not been for the goalkeeping heroics of Mark Schwarzer, they probably would have been doomed to their first home defeat in the league since October. As it was, thanks to their Australian saviour and to Hamilton Ricard's equaliser, Robson's men earned a 1-1 draw. It might not have been a performance of promotion quality but it was sufficient to claim the point that has put Middlesbrough in pole position.

Paul Merson, for one, can already see the Premiership gates opening. "If you'd said to us at the start of the season that we'd have to beat Oxford in our last match to go up we would have gladly settled for it," he said. "Quite honestly, if we don't beat Oxford we don't deserve to go up." Stranger things have happened, but with Merson at his dynamic best and Schwarzer in such sound form, it is difficult to see Oxford upsetting the graduation ceremony expected at the Riverside.

"Middlesbrough have got to be the favourites," Mark McGhee said on Wednesday night. "They can't underestimate Oxford. But I'm sure they won't." McGhee's Wolves were the third men of the First Division promotion race last season. They lost out in the play-off semi-finals, after finishing five points and three places ahead of Crystal Palace. In the six years since the Premiership breakaway truncated the Football League, no team has emerged from third place in the First Division to win the play-off final. It is not an auspicious omen for Reid. The Sunderland manager is already lamenting what ought to have been. His team had promotion in their grasp when Boro lost 1-0 at Bramall Lane on 7 April. It left them with a four- point advantage but they dropped two points after conceding two late goals at home to Queen's Park Rangers and then let slip another two in injury time at West Bromwich.

Reid's charges, having looked and played the part of a Premiership side in the making for much of the season, looked decidedly second class at Portman Road on Tuesday. They were ponderous at the back, pedestrian in midfield and for the first time in 30 league matches they failed to score. Their unbeaten run of 13 matches was brought to an end, by an in- form Ipswich team they would not relish meeting again in the play-offs.

"We're down," Niall Quinn said, "but we're not out. It's not finished yet. The important thing for us is not to think about what might have been when we can still actually do it. It could have to be done at Wembley. I don't know. But whatever happens on Sunday we're in a semi-final. That's the worst that can happen. And that's not too bad."

It was not too bad the last time it happened to Sunderland, though they did have to survive the scare of a 20-minute pitch invasion and a near- riot en route to a 2-0 victory at St James' Park in the second leg of their semi-final. Luck was on Sunderland's side in 1990. They scraped into the play-offs, six points behind Newcastle, who finished third. They even lost the final, 1-0 to Swindon, but went up because of financial misdemeanours at the County Ground. It seems they will have to do it the hard way this time - starting with a one-point handicap at Swindon, of all places.

"It's out of our hands now," Reid duly acknowledged. He can only hope for slippy fingers down at the Riverside today.

The Charlton experience,

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