Sunderland feel the pressure as Wigan's bandwagon stalls

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The Independent Online

On a day when Norwich City reached the threshold of the Nationwide First Division championship, the sides fighting to follow them into the Premiership via the play-offs showed a marked reluctance to settle the issue. Starting the day in play-off pole position, Sunderland, who had not scored in their four previous games, eventually scored after 386 barren minutes when a cross from Marcus Stewart was controlled by Jeff Whitley and he beat Ben Williams, on loan from Manchester United, in Crewe Alexandra's goal.

But Crewe came back at the Wearsiders after the break, and with 14 minutes left Dave Brammer's pass freed Dean Ashton to spring the offside trap and equalise. It ended 1-1 and the Black Cats slipped to fourth, with a game in hand, against the Canaries on Tuesday. "I think the number of games we have played recently has taken its toll," Mick McCarthy, the Sunderland manager, said, referring to the FA Cup run to the semi-finals. "I would like to think it's not all doom and gloom, more of being nervy and edgy."

Wigan Athletic, who had been in the top six for the bulk of the season, lost 1-0 to Joe Kinnear's much-improved Nottingham Forest side at the City Ground and slid out of the play-off places. Jason Roberts, the Latics striker, was suspended, so Lee McCulloch partnered Nathan Ellington. But it was Forest who found their goal touch when an Eoin Jess centre caused confusion in the Wigan goalmouth and the ball was deflected in off David Johnson. Next weekend Wigan host West Ham, and must win.

"Whatever happens in the next week, we have had a great season," the Wigan manager, Paul Jewell, said. "If we miss out it will be because we have not been quite good enough, but we will give it our best. A lot can happen on the last day of the season."

At Carrow Road Leon McKenzie, Damien Francis and Darren Huckerby were on target for Norwich in the 3-2 defeat of Preston North End, who had Marlon Broomes sent off when the score was 2-2. Steve Sidwell scored the only goal of the game as Reading beat promoted West Bromwich Albion 1-0 to keep their play-off hopes alive. "It is still a big task to make the play-offs," Sidwell judged. "All we can do next week at Watford is win and hope that the other results go our way."

At the bottom, it was a calamitous day in Kent for Gillingham as they lost 5-2 to Coventry City. To make matters worse, the Gills' player-manager, Andy Hessenthaler, was sent off. "We don't want to go down and it's all on 90 minutes against a club managed by Tony Pulis [the ex-Gillingham manager who left the club in controversial circumstances] and facing two former Priestfield players," the Gills coach, Wayne Jones, said.

The relegation worries of Derby, 2-0 winners over Millwall, and Rotherham, who overcame Burnley 3-0, ended, while already doomed Bradford City lost 2-0 at home to Stoke City, and bottom-of-the-table Wimbledon drew 1-1 at Cardiff City.

In the Second Division, Queen's Park Rangers, who beat Swindon Town 1-0, will be promoted if third-placed Bristol City fail to beat Barnsley at Oakwell this afternoon. One of those two, Brighton, and Swindon are definitely in the play-offs, with either Hartlepool United or Port Vale the fourth side. At the bottom, the two remaining relegation places will be between Chesterfield, Rushden & Diamonds, Grimsby Town or Brentford.

Doncaster sealed the Third Division championship thanks to a 0-0 draw at Boston United, and Hull City confirmed their promotion with a 2-1 win at Yeovil. Huddersfield Town and Torquay United contest the third automatic promotion place. The loser will be in the play-offs with Mansfield Town, Lincoln City and either Northampton Town or Yeovil. At the bottom, Leyton Orient won 2-1 at York City, who slip out of the League.

THE KEY ISSUES

The Premiership: Arsenal are champions. At the bottom, Leicester are relegated, Wolves effectively so, and Leeds favourites to join them.

First Division: Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion are promoted; Wimbledon and Bradford City are relegated. Seven sides battle for four play-off berths.

Second Division: Plymouth Argyle are champions with Queen's Park Rangers up if Bristol City fail to beat Barnsley today. Notts County and Wycombe are relegated.

Third Division: Doncaster Rovers are champions, with Hull promoted and Huddersfield also favourites to go up automatically; Carlisle United and York City are demoted.

The Conference: Chester City are champions with Hereford, Shrewsbury, Barnet and Aldershot in the play-offs.

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