Pardew faces second year of play-off agony

As the season approaches full-time, Jon Culley looks at the clubs who have promotion in their sights and those who are fighting to avoid relegation

Of the 16 matches that hold the key to issues still outstanding as the Coca-Cola League reaches its conclusion, none may have more at stake than West Ham's trip to Watford, which could determine whether Alan Pardew spends his summer looking for new players or a new job.

West Ham have never been a club to change managers willy-nilly. Although their third of the current decade, Pardew is only their ninth since the war. Yet of all those whose weekend may end in failure, he is the most at risk.

Despite the relentless selling that saw Pardew lose the best of the players he inherited from Glenn Roeder in October 2003, West Ham still carry debts of around £30m, with no more parachute payments to prop them up. Only a return to the Premier League would alleviate the threat of increasing hardship.

Pardew knows, therefore, that he must secure a play-off place and probably a victory in Cardiff on 30 May. He was excused defeat to Crystal Palace there a year ago but this time may find the board less forgiving.

The first requirement is to do at least as well at Vicarage Road as Steve Coppell's Reading do at Wigan, which would mean Pardew's former club misses out if Derby manage a point at home to Preston. Three years ago, Pardew's Reading pipped Coppell's Brentford for automatic promotion from the Second Division when they met on the last day.

West Ham have drawn at Brighton and lost at home to Sunderland in their last two games but Pardew remains confident. "Apart from 15 minutes at Brighton and the second half against Sunderland we have been excellent for the last nine games," he said.

Already without Teddy Sheringham, West Ham have a doubt over Matthew Etherington. Reading have left-back Nicky Shorey "only 50-50" to play at Wigan, who will be all out for the win that would clinch their automatic promotion. According to Coppell, however, "the real pressure is on Brighton, Crewe and Gillingham at the bottom".

Brighton, who face Ipswich, may hold the key to Wigan's fate and defender Kerry Mayo, who played in the last-day draw against Hereford that kept the Seagulls in the Football League eight years ago, says Mark McGhee's side will attack Ipswich, "with all guns blazing" as they seek the point that would secure their own safety and condemn Ipswich to the play-offs.

Striker Mark McCammon may return for Brighton, while Ipswich have a doubt over defender Jason de Vos. McGhee blames the financially necessary sale of midfielder Darren Currie to Ipswich for Brighton's predicament, echoing the similar thoughts of Crewe's Dario Gradi, who believes a run of 20 matches without a win would not have happened had top-scorer Dean Ashton not left for Norwich.

Crewe, for whom striker Steve Jones is doubtful, must beat Coventry to have a chance of avoiding the fate of League One-bound Nottingham Forest and Rotherham, although if Brighton get their point and Gillingham win at Forest they will be down anyway.

In League One today, Hartlepool go to Bournemouth for a match that will determine who fills the final play-off slot with reserve-team manager Martin Scott in charge following Neale Cooper's departure. Hartlepool, who need a point, have won only one of their last six away, although the Cherries have lost five in a row at home.

"We need players ready to die for the cause," Ronnie Moore, the Oldham manager, said.

The Latics must beat Bradford to be sure that a win for MK Dons, at home to Tranmere, cannot send them to League Two. But Oldham have not won in five.

Torquay need a draw at Colchester to ensure survival, which manager Leroy Rosenior says would be "a bigger achievement than winning promotion last year".

Seven games have relevance in League Two, where automatic promotion is still a matter of any three from four, as is the identity of three of the play-off participants.

Yeovil are without strikers Bartosz Tarachulski and Marcus Richardson for the visit of Lincoln, who are one of those play-off contenders, but while a point will guarantee they go up, Yeovil are in no mood to accept second best.

"We've been top of the table for most of the season and if we didn't win the championship we'd be very disappointed," said Kevin Gall, who was part of the side that won the Conference title just two years ago.

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