Football: Spurs banking on Sheringham: Phil Shaw looks at the first leg of the Easter programme

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The Independent Online
EASTER no longer represents the assault course of three matches in four days through which footballers once had to slog, although resurrection

remains firmly on the agenda.

Take Teddy Sheringham, as Tottenham certainly will when they board the bus to Norwich. Although he has not played since damaging a knee on 16 October - three days after sitting out England's World Cup nemesis in Rotterdam - Sheringham remains Spurs' top scorer and saviour-in-waiting.

Then there is Graham Taylor, who returns to active service with Wolves amid what he described yesterday as 'a big surge of goodwill', only months after being severely castigated for presiding over the national team's failure.

Both rejoin the fray today at a stage that is traditionally a watershed in the struggle for a place in the promised land of the Premiership. While neither can be expected to perform miracles, the onus is on them to provide impetus in the push for safety and the play- offs respectively.

If Swindon are doomed - and a trip to Arsenal looks an improbable starting point for an Easter rising - the scrap to avoid the other two relegation places involves eight teams. Chelsea and West Ham need only a couple more wins for salvation, leaving six to slug it out.

So far, Oldham are showing the strongest survival instinct. The visit of a Queen's Park Rangers side with nothing more than pride to play for

offers them a good opportunity to build on their midweek success at Southampton.

Manchester City, however, must wonder which Aston Villa they are about to receive. The highly motivated, tactically astute outfit who earned the gratitude of many Mancunians by beating United at Wembley? Or the punchless hotch-potch who stumbled to a stalemate with Everton three days later?

The manner in which the League Cup-winners approach the remainder of the season may well play a part in deciding who goes down. Villa also visit Sheffield United and Southampton this month.

Spurs and Everton travel, but to Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday, where they enjoy virtual bogey-team status. Sheringham hopes to be pressed into service despite only 70 minutes' reserve

action. 'Two weeks ago I couldn't even join in with the apprentices,' he said. 'Now I can't wait to play, even though I can only do about 80 per cent of what I want to.'

The First Division everyone is so anxious to avoid actually offers fierce competition in depth. With just six weeks left, but nearly a quarter of the fixtures to play, Crystal Palace (top) and Birmingham (bottom) are among the few clubs reasonably sure of where they will start come August.

Normally, 11th versus sixth would not excite feverish interest, yet the arrival of a controversial ex-England manager and an all-to-play-for scenario have conspired to make Wolves' match with Tranmere a sell-out except in the visitors' stand.

Taylor's first squad scandalously contains neither Beardsley nor Waddle - only joking, Graham - but Steve Bull really is close to a comeback. In the meantime, a refreshed Taylor is happy to take the strain of media scrutiny and let things ride. 'If I came in and started making changes now,' he said, 'I'd be showing that I'd learned nothing in the past 20 years.'

Palace take on Oxford, who have never won at Selhurst, and second-placed Nottingham Forest are at Middlesbrough, one of at least a dozen play-off hopefuls.

In the tussle for the Second Division's two automatic promotion places, Reading and Stockport have a slight edge over Plymouth and Port Vale. Peter Shilton's side go in search of a Devon double at Exeter, though a history of crowd violence suggests that Swansea and Cardiff is the derby more likely to make headlines.

Barnet, now under Shilton's old rival Ray Clemence, will be become the first team in Britain to be relegated if they fail to beat Brighton while Rotherham win and Fulham draw.

In the Third, any of the leading quintet could take the title. But if it is tough at the top, it is murder at the bottom. Notwithstanding the League's insistence that the Conference champions-elect, Kidderminster, do not meet its membership criteria, four flounderers continue to live on their nerves.

Darlington risk being cast adrift if they lose at Carlisle. Wigan and Hereford face promotion candidates - the former defending a 100 per cent record in six visits by Crewe, the latter seeking a first win at Shrewsbury - although sub- 2,000 gates question the viability of full-time football in both towns.

Not so Northampton, who until recently looked dead and buried. They test their revival against Gillingham, a game which should enhance an average crowd of well over 3,000. With a new stadium under construction and a wily manager in John Barnwell - the last of Taylor's predecessors to deliver a major trophy to Molineux - the Cobblers are far from ready for the knacker's yard.