Merson angered as late kick-off boosts Derby survival bid

The First Division's one remaining relegation issue could be settled this evening if Walsall fail to pull off an unlikely win over in-form play-off contenders Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Such an outcome, combined with a victory for Gillingham over Coventry, would leave Walsall effectively condemned to drop into the Second Division should Derby County then defeat Millwall at Pride Park.

The First Division's one remaining relegation issue could be settled this evening if Walsall fail to pull off an unlikely win over in-form play-off contenders Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Such an outcome, combined with a victory for Gillingham over Coventry, would leave Walsall effectively condemned to drop into the Second Division should Derby County then defeat Millwall at Pride Park.

Derby kick off at 5.35pm for the benefit of Sky TV viewers, prompting a complaint from Walsall's caretaker manager, Paul Merson, that his side's closest relegation rivals have been handed an unfair advantage. "We cannot use it as an excuse because we've played 44 games to get where we are, but it's bad timing," Merson said. "It's bad timing because Derby will know what they have to do. It could also affect Millwall because if the other teams in the play-offs race have won they could be out of it."

However, if the Derby defender Michael Johnson has his way, the Rams dressing room will be subject to a news black-out until after their meeting with the FA Cup finalists is concluded.

"The late kick-off could work to our advantage if Walsall lose, but if they get a result it will put a lot of pressure on us," he said. "I think the best thing for the players is not to know any of the results. We just have to focus solely on beating Millwall. Even if Walsall lose, I wouldn't want to know. It's all about what we do."

All First Division games kick off simultaneously on the last day of the season and Johnson believes the same rule should apply today. "I would not have thought Walsall are too happy about it, either," he said. "All it does is put extra pressure on players and management."

Merson believes Walsall were unlucky to lose against Sheffield United last weekend and feels a victory today is not out of the question. However, the Saddlers have suffered four consecutive defeats without scoring a goal since their unexpected win at Derby last month.

Palace, by contrast, are unbeaten in six matches, including five wins, and have not lost at home since Boxing Day. They also boast one of the First Division's top scorers in 30-goal Andrew Johnson and look to have the momentum to clinch a play-off place, possibly at the expense of West Ham United.

Ironically, the Palace manager, Iain Dowie, could have been in charge at West Ham, a club for whom he played and who he supported as a boy. He admits to mixed feelings about how the season might end. "I would love to see West Ham in the Premiership because that is where they should be," he said. "But if it is not to be this year for them, then I hope it is us."

Given that Palace, who trail West Ham and Wigan Athletic, were worried about relegation when he took charge, Dowie believes to have come this far is a merit-worthy achievement.

"We never set a points target or expected to do anything but we could be involved in a fantastic end of season," he said. "This season will have been a huge success even if we don't get in because we were involved in relegation when I came in."

It is not an attitude shared by Wigan, who have been in the top six for much of the season. For them not making the play-offs would feel like failure, but with West Ham favourites to beat Watford at home, Paul Jewell's side will want a point at least from their trip to Nottingham Forest. Even then they may still need to beat West Ham at home on the last day, a week tomorrow.

The relegation issue will also be delayed until then should Derby not beat Millwall. Intriguingly, with Walsall due to face Rotherham at home, George Burley's side might find a last-day visit to Wimbledon more daunting than might be imagined. Although the already-relegated Dons have not won at home since 1 November, Derby are without an away success since 30 September.

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