Selhurst Park will be a throbbing mass of expectancy this evening as Crystal Palace tear into West Bromwich, knowing that victory will see them escape relegation from the Championship despite that 10-point administration penalty. But at least one man in the crowd will be sensing the potential of the occasion for a wildly contrasting reason.
In 33 years as a player and manager Alan Irvine has never been relegated. Indeed, since entering Gafferdom the 51-year-old has not even come close. "This is a new situation for me so I don't know how I would react," said the Sheffield Wednesday manager after defeat at Cardiff on Saturday took them to the brink. "But I won't hide from it, I won't stay away and watch it on telly. I have no choice but to go along as we're playing Palace on Sunday. And if they don't win..."
He did not need to explain the permutations as they are imprinted on the psyche of every Owl and every Eagle. If Palace draw or lose they will travel to Hillsborough next Sunday for a classic final-day shoot-out. A win would then see Wednesday saved and not have to return to a third tier they celebrated consigning to the banks of the bad memories five years ago.
Dave Jones, the Cardiff manager, is probably in the majority who recognise the quality of opposition up against Paul Hart's men this evening and envisages it "going to the last weekend". But there is the another school of thought which sees an already-promoted team and predicts an inevitable drop-off in motivation. Irvine was determined not to afford any credence to the latter argument.
"The great thing about football in this country is that it's honest," he said. "Nothing affects how a team goes about its job. We knew we'd have a difficult game against Cardiff today, that they'd play a very strong team and give us a lot of problems. That proved to be the case. West Brom will do the same against Palace. That's the nature of the British game and it's something that gives us hope."
Hope, however, seemed an extremely rare commodity when the whistle blew on the visitors in the Welsh capital. A few of their players sat on the floor, bodies stooped, whole most of the others held their head in the hands. They had taken the lead against the play-off contestants and then forced the equaliser. But thanks to the prodigious Peter Whittingham – scoring his 20th league goal from midfield – and a classy double from the ever more impressive Jay Bothroyd their efforts amounted to nought. "The boys are extremely low," admitted Irvine.
Their reaction merely summed up the foreboding at a club who, in the 90s, rode so proudly as seemed Premier League mainstays. The debts are reported to top the £20m mark and, despite a Chicago consortium by the name of Club 9 insisting they will step in regardless of League status, the financial repercussions will still be stark. There is truly so much resting on tonight. "It'll be a long 90 minutes for Palace and a long 90 minutes for me," said Irvine.
What may make it even more difficult to watch is the recollection of West Brom's offer last summer. The Scotsman turned down what was then undoubtedly the plumb job in the division to stay loyal to Preston. Four months later they sacked him. Within a few days Irvine pitched up at second-from-bottom Wednesday and although he led them out of the mire it soon swallowed them back up again. And all the while the party raged at the Hawthorns as West Bromwich danced back into the promised land. Irvine would not be human if the what-might-have-beens do not invade the what-may-soon-bes.
Not that he would receive any sympathy from the Palace faithful. If Wednesday do survive it will be essentially be because of what happened off the pitch. Yet that won't bother Irvine one bit. It is all about the power of outside forces now. "It's not where we want to be but we are," he said. Last night he and the players happened to be somewhere else they didn't want to be – at the club's end-of-season awards. The champagne was not in abundance.
Cardiff City (4-4-2): Marshall, McNaughton, Capaldi, Gerrard, Blake (Hudson 46), Whittingham, McPhail (Wildig 66), Ledley, Etuhu (Burke 59), Bothroyd, Chopra. Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Quinn, Matthews, McCormack.
Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Grant, Spurr, Purse, Beevers, Nolan, Potter, O'Connor, Johnson (Clarke 46), Soares (Jeffers 63), Tudgay, Varney (Esajas 68). Substitutes not used: O'Donnell (gk), Buxton, Hinds, Gray.
Referee: P Taylor (Herts).
Booked: Cardiff Ledley; Sheff Wed Tudgay, Purse, Potter.
Man of the match: Bothroyd.
Howe resurrects Bournemouth
Bournemouth, who were in administration two years ago and started last season having been docked 17 points, continued their remarkable recovery under manager Eddie Howe by clinching promotion from League Two with a 2-0 win at Burton Albion.
*They replace Southend who were relegated after they could only draw 2-2 at Oldham, the Shrimpers completing a five-year journey out of the bottom flight to the Championship and back again.Reuse content