Football: Rovers plan last laugh

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The Independent Online
THE TALK among Tranmere followers is that Everton have asked to stage their games on Friday nights so as not to clash with Rovers or Liverpool.

The joke is suffused with an element of resentment towards Goodison, who will soon have Peter Johnson, currently chairman at Prenton Park, underwriting their future. The Wirral club, so long in the shadow of the region's two heavyweights, hope to have the last laugh.

Starting today. Little of substance can arise at the top of the Endsleigh League First Division on the season's final day, except that fourth-placed Tranmere will hope to leapfrog Leicester City and so acquire the favoured home advantage in the second leg of the play-off semi-finals.

Tranmere's positive side, built on the guile and goals of John Aldridge and the highly regarded Ged Brannan, face a substantial obstacle at a packed Prenton. Birmingham City, and their 6,200 supporters, travel hopefully up the M6, knowing a range of results could keep them up. Preferably victory.

City (48 points) are vying with Oxford United (46) and West Bromwich Albion (48) to avoid the pair of remaining relegation positions, a fraught situation exacerbated in Birmingham's case by their inferior record of goals scored, the Football League's criterion for judging clubs on equal points.

Birmingham arrive on Merseyside, for a game strangely deemed unworthy of live broadcast, armed with the self- confidence of an in-form side - 11 points out of a possible 15 - and an ebullient manager more experienced in recovery work than the RAC.

'I'm used to matches that go to the wire,' Barry Fry, who has performed rescuing acts at Barnet and Southend, says, 'but you could say that this is the toughest I've ever faced.

'Going to Tranmere needing three points to stay up in the final game is not the fixture you would choose - but the way we've been playing we should fear nobody.' The fear factor may spread if Birmingham, with their occasionally volatile support, fail today.

If Prenton Park stages the division's match of the day, Fratton Park cannot be far behind in terms of tension and excitement. West Brom, compact, stylish and possessing in Lee Ashcroft one of the most watchable players outside the Premiership, appear the likeliest of the troubled trio to stay up, but the Baggies too must prosper against Portsmouth.

Only victory will keep Oxford up, but they entertain Notts County who could, by scoring a minimum of seven goals, replace Derby County in the play-offs. Unlikely.

What is definite is that Crystal Palace will be presented with the First Division championship and a cheque for pounds 50,000. With which they should place an immediate down-payment on Paul Stewart, who helped them climb back.

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