Nationwide play-offs: Warnock avoids chance to blow his trumpet while Sir Jack causes dismay in Berkshire

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The Independent Online

If any of the principle characters might indulge in a spot of pyschological warfare ahead of today's opening Nationwide League play-off exchanges, you would probably expect it to be Neil Warnock, who generally requires no second invitation to rub an opponent up the wrong way. The Sheffield United manager could be forgiven for boasting a little prior to his side's attempt to reach the Premiership. After all, his record in play-off matches is perfect – four attempts with three clubs, four successes.

If any of the principle characters might indulge in a spot of pyschological warfare ahead of today's opening Nationwide League play-off exchanges, you would probably expect it to be Neil Warnock, who generally requires no second invitation to rub an opponent up the wrong way. The Sheffield United manager could be forgiven for boasting a little prior to his side's attempt to reach the Premiership. After all, his record in play-off matches is perfect – four attempts with three clubs, four successes.

Yet Warnock has gone out of his way to play down the Blades' chances, insisting that others should be considered at shorter odds, including today's opponents at the City Ground, Nottingham Forest. His rival managers have followed suit before a four-way contest that is as difficult to predict as any in recent seasons.

Nowhere have heads stayed lower than at Molineux, where last year's bitter experience still sits in the mind. Having blown their automatic promotion chance and then fallen at the first play-off hurdle, the players have agreed a self-imposed ban on discussing their prospects and the manager Dave Jones, aware of where another failure might leave his job, has chosen his public words carefully.

Imagine their horror, then, when Sir Jack Hayward, their 79-year-old chairman and benefactor, announced Wolves would not only beat Reading in today's first leg at Molineux but put six past them – "just like we did against Gillingham the other week". No offence was intended by Sir Jack. Indeed, it was nothing more than a casual remark, made at a ceremony in which he was awarded the Freedom of Bristol.

But it has been more than enough to stoke up a fire in Berkshire, where Reading's feeling that their presence in the play-offs is not being taken seriously has only intensified. In fact, having won at Wolves and Sheffield United during the regular season, the side that came up from the Second Division 12 months ago are worthy of much more respect than Sir Jack appears to be giving them. "We've had to work the market a little to bring in players because the ITV Digital collapse left us with little money to spend," the Reading manager Alan Pardew said. "But while our first target was to stay in this division that is not to say that promotion was not a target too. We feel we have a great chance and we intend to take it."

Reinforced by the signings of Paul Ince and Denis Irwin, this is a better Wolves side than a year ago but having failed at the play-off stage in 1995, 1997 and 2001, they are wary. However, with striker Kenny Miller maintaining form, Hayward's prediction may at least be partially justified, if not quite by six goals.

Warnock, meanwhile, refuses to predict success, even though the talents of Michael Brown and Michael Tonge make them many people's favourites. "We are capable of winning but it is the probably the closest to call since the play-offs started."

Cardiff's loss of form in the Second Division promotion race is reminiscent of Wolves' nosedive last season. Lennie Lawrence's side have won only twice in their last eight matches and come up against a Bristol City side with only one defeat in 10. There are suggestions that Lawrence may pay the price should the Bluebirds fail.

Intriguingly, the other Second Division tie pits the Oldham manager Iain Dowie against Queen's Park Rangers, where he ended his playing career and took his first steps in coaching. The first leg at Boundary Park is expected to attract the largest crowd there since Oldham were last in the First Division in 1996.

A Third Division play-off against Scunthorpe is Lincoln City's reward for 12 months in which they have climbed from the brink of dropping into the Conference to finish sixth, despite being forced to cut their playing budget by one third.

Bournemouth, who narrowly missed out on a Second Division play-off spot two years ago only to be relegated last season, continue their attempt to bounce back at the first attempt by seeking to overcome Bury, to whom they lost both home and away in the season proper.

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