High stakes as battle commences to join the élite

For clubs struggling with debt, the First Division play-offs are seen as more important than the FA Cup

"It is not the end of the world, it just feels like it." To three sets of fans in Sunderland, Ipswich and east and south London, Peter Reid's words will seem very true.

Reid was in the corridors of Selhurst Park when he made those remarks after a 1-0 defeat by Wimbledon relegated Sunderland from the Premiership. They will be back at Selhurst Park tonight, this time to face Crystal Palace, and the stakes are even higher than they were in May 1997.

The Crystal Palace manager, Iain Dowie, was yesterday asked to describe the First Division play-offs. They had, he said, "something of the circus" about them, although the qualities of that circus is Roman rather than anything run by Gerry Cottle.

They are cruel, gladiatorial and intensely unjust affairs. Jim Smith never recovered from the sense of anger that Portsmouth, who missed out on promotion to the newly-formed Premier League on goal difference, should have lost the semi-finals to Leicester, who finished 12 points and three places behind.

In 1992, when attempting to steer a Blackburn side that had just begun to receive Jack Walker's immense investment, Kenny Dalglish felt so stressed during a play-off semi-final with Derby he imagined he was having a heart-attack.

Few people dispute the First Division play-off final has eclipsed the FA Cup final in importance. In financial terms there is no argument. It is the single most valuable fixture in world football.

When Michael Gray aimed his penalty kick at the Charlton keeper, Sasa Ilic, his chairman at Sunderland, Bob Murray, calculated that Gray had cost the club £10m. By the time Norwich fouled up their penalty shoot-out against Birmingham four years later, it had risen to £15m. The following season Sunderland stormed into the Premiership with 105 points.

In this, Sunderland are still unique. No other team that has been beaten in the First Division play-off final has ever won automatic promotion the following year. One, Brighton, who lost to Notts County in 1991, went on to be relegated. Relegation is, famously, the fate that awaits most of the winners. Nine of the 14 victorious clubs lasted a single season in their promised lands while only three: Blackburn, from 1992-99, Leicester, 1996-2002, and Sam Allardyce's Bolton established themselves with any degree of permanence. Birmingham might be a fourth.

Blackburn and Birmingham had money, Bolton and Leicester under Martin O'Neill boasted exceptional managers. Between them, Sunderland and West Ham owe £80m, Ipswich have only recently come out of administration while Crystal Palace are kept afloat only through the investment of their chairman, Simon Jordan. They have good, rather than great, managers, although Dowie might well be out of the ordinary, while at Ipswich Joe Royle has a record none of the others can match.

Traditionally, the place to be is where Palace find themselves; sixth ­ lucky to be here and under no pressure. Third, as every club bar Notts County, Ipswich and Bolton discovered, is a cup of poison. This is not quite true. Only one club has won a final, having begun in the final play-off place; Crystal Palace in 1997. The lucky position, as Ipswich will be grateful to learn, is fifth.

Palace have been longest out of the Premiership. For Sunderland and West Ham this might be a single, painful season in the cold. Despite the sale of some of the brightest jewels in English football, that has raised £27m, and having slashed the wage bill by £13m, West Ham still owe £47.1m, and their chairman, Terry Brown, is the target of a sustained campaign for his removal

On Wearside, Murray controls debts of £33m, although calls for his resignation have been very muted. West Ham and Sunderland's may have cut costs but their wage bills still tower over any others in the First Division, including West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City.

The Sunderland of Mick McCarthy is not the one which under Reid swaggered into the 1998 play-offs with 90 points and which saw a vast sea of people, like an encamped medieval army, spending the night outside the Stadium of Light, waiting for the ticket office to open. This is a club adapted to a harder climate. If they are promoted, Sunderland will never again offer a footballer an £8.2m package as Reid did, particularly if that footballer is as indifferent as Tore Andre Flo.

Since this time last year, 23 professionals have departed, income from television has fallen by £6.9m, turnover is down by £12m, gate receipts by £2m. The shock of losing to Millwall in an FA Cup semi-final which would have given them European football has left a dark bruise. Defeat now by another club from south London would leave an open wound that would bleed deep into the summer.

ROAD TO THE PLAY-OFF FINAL

FIRST LEGS

TODAY: Crystal Palace v Sunderland (8.0)

TOMORROW: Ipswich v West Ham (12.15)

SECOND LEGS

17 MAY: Sunderland v Crystal Palace (8.0)

18 MAY: West Ham v Ipswich (7.45)

FINAL

29 MAY: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

CRYSTAL PALACE

Manager: Iain Dowie

Yo-yo factor: Palace were founder members of the Premier League, but have been relegated to the First Division three times, in 1993, 1995 and 1998, lasting only one season on both their previous stays at the top. The current six-year run in the First Division is their longest outside the top flight since the 1980s.

Play-off pedigree: David Hopkin's wonder goal in the last minute against Sheffield United earned Palace promotion in the 1997 final, 12 months after Steve Claridge's last-gasp mis-hit shot had sent Leicester into the top flight at the Eagles' expense. In their only previous play-off final appearance, in 1989, Palace beat Blackburn over two legs.

Current form: After reaching the play-off places with six wins in seven matches, Iain Dowie's team looked nervous in a final-day defeat at Coventry and only kept their top-six place thanks to Brian Deane's late equaliser for West Ham at Wigan.

SUNDERLAND

Manager: Mick McCarthy

Yo-yo factor: A yo-yo club for decades. They gained promotion to the Premier League for the first time in 1996. They were immediately relegated, earning a second promotion in 1999. A four-year stay ended in a second relegation last season.

Play-off pedigree: In 1987, they drew 6-6 on aggregate with Gillingham in a relegation play-off but lost on away goals, meaning demotion to the old Third Division. In 1990, they lost the old Second Division play-off final to Swindon but were promoted due to Swindon's financial irregularities. In 1998, they lost the First Division play-off final 7-6 on penalties to Charlton after a 4-4 draw.

Current form: Unbeaten in four. Last defeat came against their play-off opponents, Palace, where they lost 3-0 on 21 April. Two other recent defeats also came against promotion rivals, Ipswich and West Bromwich Albion.

WEST HAM UNITED

Manager: Alan Pardew

Yo-yo factor: Low yo-yo credentials, in the Premier League era at least. They missed the first season among the revamped élite, 1992-93, but were ever present for the next 10 years, finishing in the top 10 five times during that period. Arguably unlucky to be relegated last season on 42 points.

Play-off pedigree: This season sees their first play-off involvement. They have twice been promoted in the play-off era (since 1987) but gained automatic promotion on both occasions, first in 1991, from the old Second Division in second place behind Oldham, then in 1993 from the First Division to the Premier League, in second place behind Newcastle.

Current form: Late goal in last weekend's 1-1 draw scuppered Wigan's play-off hopes. Won three on the bounce before that. Only defeat in last six came at Crystal Palace, 1-0 on 12 April.

IPSWICH TOWN

Manager: Joe Royle

Yo-yo factor: Ipswich were founder members of the Premier League in 1992, but have been relegated to the First Division twice, in 1995 and 2002. Their first Premier League stay lasted three seasons and their second lasted two. They have never finished lower than seventh in seven seasons in the First Division since 1995.

Play-off pedigree: In 1987 they lost a two-legged play-off to Charlton and remained in the old Second Division. They lost a hat-trick of close-fought play-off semi-finals in 1997, 1998 and 1999 before making a first final in 2000, when they beat Barnsley 4-2.

Current form: Patchy, no win in last three games. Held 1-1 at home by Cardiff last weekend, drew previous match 1-1 at Sheffield United and lost the one before that at home to Nottingham Forest. But had hat-trick of wins prior to that sequence.

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