Fearing the worst

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The press trooped into the Portakabin which doubles as a media suite at Southampton's rural training ground, took one look at the biscuits provided, and turned up their noses. "Rich Tea! They're making cutbacks already. They're Championship biscuits, not Premiership ones"

The press trooped into the Portakabin which doubles as a media suite at Southampton's rural training ground, took one look at the biscuits provided, and turned up their noses. "Rich Tea! They're making cutbacks already. They're Championship biscuits, not Premiership ones"

It was meaningless, time-killing banter on one level but, on another, yesterday's exchange symbolised the black humour which feeds the drip-drip depression which settles on a club fighting relegation. After 10 minutes in which every newcomer added to the biscuit abuse, the press officer quietly disappeared before returning with a packet of Fox's Speciality biscuits. As the pack descended on the chocolate creams a voice chanted: "Staying up with Harry and Jim".

Relegation. Some teams ban the R-word but that does not stop it dominating the lives of every employee at an endangered club, from the chairman to the receptionist. Especially relegation from the Premiership, with its massive drop in income.

The figures are startling. Even with the £10m parachute payment the cost is reckoned to be around £15m a year. The casualties are numerous: Bradford, QPR, Sheffield Wednesday and Wimbledon all flirted with bankruptcy as they plummeted into League Two. West Ham survived only by selling off most of their team and Sunderland laid off most of their staff.

"It affects everyone at the club," said David Pleat, a veteran manager, currently assisting Portsmouth's survival, and the central figure in one of the most dramatic of relegation escapes. "When a club goes down jobs are cut, maybe not immediately but they are before long. The club will need less people selling tickets, less stewards, and so on."

The pressure is on everyone, but especially on the manager. He is the club's public face, the man who the players, the only ones who can get a club out of trouble, look to. "The manager may have to do a bit of pretending," added Pleat. "You lie through your teeth telling everyone you're full of confidence."

To judge from his demeanour in the Portakabin Harry Redknapp would not have won many Oscars. His Southampton team were humiliated by Portsmouth on Sunday and currently sit beneath Norwich, Crystal Palace and West Brom, the other clubs embroiled in what has developed into a compelling struggle. While most seasons one, sometimes two clubs, appear doomed by March, this time all have reason to believe they will be the lone survivor.

Southampton have most to lose having built up the cost-base commensurate with years in the top flight. Norwich, by contrast, have a wage structure which means everyone, players and back-room staff, revert to lower wages if relegated.

The pair meet today with Redknapp's task being to lift the players. However, just lifting himself has clearly been difficult. "When I go home I don't feel particularly great," he said. "You don't. Anyone who says you do is off their head. You take everything personally. It's not easy when things don't go well."

Will he change the team?

"You tell me who to bring in. We're not overloaded with people I can change who will make any difference. That's the problem at the club."

This vote of confidence in a largely inherited squad was followed by: "They're not the type of lads you can keep knocking. If you keep telling them what they can't do you've got no chance. They're a good group of lads but pretty quiet. I've got to make them believe in themselves and be positive. We need strong characters. Players who will stand up to a bit of pressure and play.

"I'm still confident, of course," he added without sounding it. Redknapp then said of today's match: "If we're scared of Norwich what chance have we got? They haven't won away all season. If we can't beat them we are playing in the wrong division, we're playing out of our depth."

The Norwich manager, Nigel Worthington, was also focusing on attitude. "We have got to keep fighting for it, wanting it," he said. " The desire has got to be there, the passion has got to be there. I think Saturday might be a good time to go out and show those qualities again."

The was echoed by the Palace manager, Ian Dowie, who visit Newcastle today. "When you've trained as hard as we have, you can dig deep and find something," he said. "Fitness is not going to keep you in the League. Neither is mental toughness. But you add up all the one per cents and you get the difference between winning and losing."

Bryan Robson's West Brom do not play until Monday when Albion play Arsenal. The temptation will be to follow his rivals' results but he may be better served losing himself on the golf course.

"The first thing I said to Alain Perrin was 'keep calm'," said Pleat of his role advising Portsmouth's new manager. "They were worried they could be relegated . That results in wild football. A team that keeps calm will not lose its discipline."

It was 22 years ago that Pleat's Luton escaped relegation on the final day of the (then) First Division season by winning at Maine Road, sending Manchester City down, and many will remember his celebratory jig on the pitch. Ahead of that match, following 5-1 and 3-0 defeats Pleat consulted a psychologist.

"'Really murder them, then at the last minute, lift them,' that's what he told me," said Pleat. "You give them the stick early in the week, telling them, 'You bastards have got us in this mess, you've got to get us out of it. Don't feel sorry for yourselves. You were absolute crap last week. Your families, your whole livelihoods are at stake.'

"Then you give them the carrot. You tell them they are the greatest team on earth and can win easily if they play well, play together, play with spirit, work, play responsibly. You've got to get them believing they can play by kick-off."

On the Saturday Raddy Antic's goal saved Luton and sent down City. Pleat believes Southampton will escape. So does their defender, Danny Higginbotham, who revealed the team and Redknapp had talked at length on Monday and Tuesday. "It was constructive, rather than people biting each other's heads off. We've got it out of our system now.

Was he kidding us, and himself, or was this the reality? All will be revealed at 3pm today.

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