Derby prepare soft landing for Burley as trap door looms

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The Independent Online

With Debts of £34m still around their necks from their overspending days in the Premiership, relegation is the last thing Derby County need. But with six matches left and a possible requirement of four wins, the Second Division appears to be beckoning the Rams two years after they slipped out of the top flight.

With Debts of £34m still around their necks from their overspending days in the Premiership, relegation is the last thing Derby County need. But with six matches left and a possible requirement of four wins, the Second Division appears to be beckoning the Rams two years after they slipped out of the top flight.

Given that today's opponents are West Ham at Upton Park, and that Derby have not won away from home since September, it can be taken almost as read that they will be back in the East Midlands this evening needing four wins from five.

However, the Pride Park board insist there will be no financial catastrophe if Derby fail to escape the drop and have even promised to give their manager, George Burley, funds to rebuild his team.

The director, Jeremy Keith, says the club's financial position, while not exactly enviable, is stable enough for new revenue to be handed to the manager and he is encouraging fans to pledge support by buying season tickets for the 2004-05 campaign, knowing their cash will have a direct influence on how good a side Burley can assemble.

"We don't have to pay off our debt for another 10 years, so we have the opportunity to spend any money we make primarily on the squad," Keith said. "So revenue from season tickets and any other sources will be made available to George to spend on both transfer fees and wages." Armed with that knowledge, Burley has already compiled shortlists of potential targets for either eventuality. "We have drawn up a list of possible targets and we also have a list of alternatives, depending on which division we are in next season," he said.

Derby's self-doubt increased last weekend when they were beaten at home by fellow strugglers Walsall, a result which left Burley's side favourites to go down with already-relegated Wimbledon and almost-doomed Bradford.

Burley is doing his best to give today's game a positive spin. "On paper, it looks the toughest of our remaining six games but the pressure is on them as it is on us," he said. "They need points as they push for a play-off position and we need them to stay in the division. The other teams around us will think we'll get nothing so any positive result would be a massive morale booster."

Walsall manager, Colin Lee, believes victory today against another struggling side, Burnley, will secure his club's First Division status for a third consecutive season, something never before achieved by the West Midlands side. Lee said: "It's a bigger job to keep Walsall in Division One than to win promotion out of the Second Division. To do so again would be a massive achievement because of the sides you come up against in the First Division. If we can stay up, it will probably be the biggest achievement of my managerial career."

His Burnley counterpart, Stan Ternent, is eager to see his side keep Walsall's future in doubt and then beat another relegation candidate, Watford, at home on Monday. "We have two important games and if we win them it might be enough to keep us up," he said. "I do know we have seven games left and I would like the points in the bag sooner, rather than than later."

Watford's Ray Lewington is thinking along similar lines as he prepares to take on Crewe at home today. "If we could pick up six points from those two games we would be almost there," he said.

Gillingham's worries will increase if they lose at West Bromwich Albion while a shock success for Derby would leave Rotherham vulnerable, should they lose at home to Ipswich.

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