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Football League

Quartet face great escape or greatest humiliation

The theme from The Great Escape is played at most football grounds, especially ones which have nothing particular to escape from. It is a peculiarly inappropriate tune as nearly all those who tunnelled out of the Stalag Luft camp were captured and nearly all were shot. Even Steve McQueen returned to The Cooler.

It is a fair bet to be played at Shrewsbury's Gay Meadow tonight and Kevin Ratcliffe's team will need every source of inspiration. Unless they win their final two games of the season, against Carlisle this evening and Scunthorpe on Saturday, a team which in January humbled Everton and which performed minor heroics against Chelsea will be relegated from the Football League. One other side, probably Exeter City, will join them. For the first time, there will be two teams suffering what is thought of as professional football's greatest humiliation.

Swansea, who managed to attract more than 9,000 to the Vetch Field to see them lose to Exeter, have been given some breathing space by a 2-1 victory at Rochdale on Saturday but, should they lose to Hull, that might see the downfall of a club which in 1982 finished a couple of points behind Arsenal.

There is something horribly appropriate about the fixture list; Shrewsbury's first league fixture in 1950, was against Scunthorpe and it might be their last. They have been here before. Two years ago on the last Saturday of the season, Ratcliffe took his team, who were bottom of the Third Division, to Exeter. They won 2-1 and Chester, who lost 1-0 at Peterborough, were relegated instead of Carlisle by virtue of having scored fewer goals. Had the measure been goal difference, as it was to be the next season, then Carlisle would have lost their league status.

Ratcliffe admitted this task is more difficult. Shrewsbury have won none of their last 13 fixtures and have been mired down by nerves and there have been reports that Ratcliffe's health has suffered.

"I've looked at myself every Saturday night I've got home," said the Shrewsbury manager in the wake of the 3-0 defeat at Hartlepool that took his club to the brink. "Somebody said to me: if you put a mirror on the door and you look at it when you go out for a match, can you look at it when you come back in? I can but the results say that's not the case with too many of my players."

Carlisle are usual suspects for occasions such as these. In 1999 they were within seconds of losing their league status when Jimmy Glass, an on-loan goalkeeper, scored in the 95th minute to condemn Scarborough to the drop and save Carlisle's chairman, Michael Knighton, from a possible lynching.

Knighton had been refused police protection but braved the demonstrations, although the two elderly stewards assigned to stop the mob getting to him had quietly slipped away when Glass scored. Knighton was soon addressing the television cameras saying he believed in "aliens, flying saucers and goalkeepers who score in the 95th minute." True to form, Glass never played again for Carlisle.

Despite a change of ownership, Carlisle have continued to struggle. Their manager, Roddy Collins, prepared for Saturday's vital 3-2 victory at Torquay by throwing one of his on-loan players, Stuart Green, off the team bus, claiming he had been attempting to negotiate his transfer back to Hull. "How can you ask a man like that to run through a brick wall for you?" Collins claimed by way of explanation.

Shrewsbury have also seen their preparations hindered when their leading scorer, Luke Rodgers, was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and fined £5,000 after a 16-year-old girl was struck in the face by a firework.

It is perhaps significant that, Swansea apart, the three other clubs in the relegation mire have all had impressive cup runs. Carlisle reached the final of the LDV Vans Trophy while Exeter made it through to the third round of the FA Cup. It may be coincidence that all are at the geographical extremities of the Football League.

Some are at the financial extremities. Exeter may simply cease to exist if they lose to Southend on Saturday. They are £1m in debt, most of it comprising a £580,000 bill from the firm which built two of their stands, and their chairman, John Russell, is a convicted fraudster who is in grave danger of becoming the first man ever to take two clubs out of the Football League – he was previously chairman of Scarborough. Theirs would not be a relegation but a mercy killing.