Paranoia a four-way street on last-chance afternoon

Survival Sunday is a day for charms and prayers. Ronald Atkin reports from the rival camps
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The Independent Football

To borrow from Delia, let's be 'avin' you. Step forward the one team, out of Norwich, Southampton, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich, who will survive this afternoon's tightest relegation struggle in the top flight of English football for 35 years. Deliverance day beckons for one, doomsday looms for the other three.

To borrow from Delia, let's be 'avin' you. Step forward the one team, out of Norwich, Southampton, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich, who will survive this afternoon's tightest relegation struggle in the top flight of English football for 35 years. Deliverance day beckons for one, doomsday looms for the other three.

As the crunch nears, those brave souls at the sharp end of this deliciously sadistic game of real-life snakes and ladders, the managers, have been reaching deep for inspiration to provide ongoing Premiership life after teatime today. At Southampton, Harry Redknapp is toting a plastic angel donated by his wife, West Brom's Bryan Robson flaunts a miniature likeness of Buddha provided by his children, Palace's Iain Dowie turned a training session on its head by playing a game of cricket, while Nigel Worthington of Norwich hasn't bothered. After all, he has Delia.

The turnaround in Norwich's fortunes roughly coincided with the rallying cry of Delia Smith, the club's controlling investor and No 1 supporter, at half-time in a home game with Man-chester City at the end of February. Initial shock at her bellowed exhortations was rapidly replaced by massive approval, rather the way John Prescott soared in the public's estimation by punching the mullet-haired egg-thrower.

After Norwich had been trounced at Arsenal in their next game, Worthington convened a meeting of staff and players. "There were 10 games to go," he said. "The scenario was a bit like a boxer: chuck in the towel, give up and have an easy ride to the end of the season and concede, or roll up our sleeves and go for it. And the lads have done that, great credit to them. Now we are in pole position. Win at Fulham and we stay up, no matter what the others do. It's down to us to finish the job. Come hell or high water, we will all be having a bite to eat after the game somewhere near London," he added, denying Delia would be doing the catering. "And if you said to me now, do you want to be in this position next season, I would probably take it, because it would mean we were still in the Premiership."

Up at the Hawthorns, Robson is of similar mind. While reporting sadly that he had not been dreaming about the home game with Portsmouth "because I have not been sleeping", he acknowledged that if someone had promised at the start of the season that the Baggies could go into the final match knowing they might pull off The Great Escape, the offer would have been snatched at.

If they win and the others don't, Albion could become the first team in Premiership history to survive after being bottom at Christmas. "There is," claims Robson, "a great belief among the boys that we can do it. They have done everything I have asked of them, and that is what has got us into this position."

Portsmouth supporters, who want to see hated rivals Southampton suffer the drop, are reported to be offering West Brom and their followers support, but Robson dismissed rumours that Pompey would not try. "It is a nonsense to think Portsmouth will just lie down." However, he does not deny that his opponents are potentially the easiest of the four.

Redknapp, whose Southampton are at home to the toughest, Manchester United, does not expect the FA Cup finalists to do him any favours. "People are saying Sir Alex Ferguson will rest a few players because of next week's final, but they don't have any poor ones to come in, do they? It will be a great achievement if we stay up." If they don't, there will be massive cuts among the Premiership's biggest playing staff, with the survivors facing steep salary reductions, while what Redknapp calls "the biggest game of my life" might prove to be his last as Southampton's manager.

Dowie commiserates with Redknapp - "He has come back into a struggling club, trying to put a plaster over things" - while bemoaning the last-gasp goal which earned Southampton a point at Selhurst Park last week. "Because of that, we are not in a position to shape our own destiny. We have to win at Charlton and then see what happens. What we have to make sure is we deliver.

"The last year has been enjoyable, if painful at times, some difficult pills to swallow, but we are a much better- organised and disciplined club, the building bricks are in place for the players of the future. You learn more in adversity. I have learned more about my players because they have performed in difficult times. That sort of thing tells you a lot about character.

"I don't know what this game is worth to Palace: £18 million? I am not interested in monetary terms but what this will do for the club, to have its own state-of-the-art training facility. In order to produce a Premiership side you need an environment conducive to it. So it's bricks and mortar first for me, put the environment in place.

"Maybe my future here will be short- term if we do go down, but it still won't change the way I do business. I want people to say what I did was for the long-term, not for a quick fix. I can walk away from this club now, look people in the eye and say I've done the best I can." So, of course, can Messrs Worthington, Robson and Redknapp. Will the survivor please step forward? Let's be 'avin' you.

Up or down: the permutations

Norwich City (33pts, v Fulham, away): Win and they stay up. Even defeat might be enough, were the sides below them to lose. If the match is a draw, and one of the other three win (in the case of West Brom by three goals), Norwich go down.

Southampton (32pts, v Man United, home): Even beating a chastened, distracted United might not guarantee survival. But if Norwich lost, Saints would only need to draw because of a superior goal difference. Defeat spells the end for them.

Crystal Palace (32pts, v Charlton, away): Need to win at The Valley - and even that might not be good enough. A draw is not enough, unless Fulham beat Norwich by eight goals.

West Brom (31pts, v Portsmouth, home): Have to beat Portsmouth to maintain a slight chance and hope that Norwich lose. A draw would send them down to the Championship. The Baggies were the bottom club at Christmas, so there is also Premiership history against them.

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