Fry has taste for promotion

Phil Shaw on football's First Division title race and the weekend Premiership action
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Forget, for a moment, the tussle between Kenny Dalglish and Alex Ferguson to plant their flag on the Premiership summit, and the seven clubs still struggling on the slippery slopes near the bottom. This is the day when the king of the cliff-hangers, Barry Fry, comes into his own.

If ever a manager and a club were made for each other, it is Fry and Birmingham City. They share a history of brinkmanship unrivalled in the modern game, with the latest nerve-racking chapter about to unfold before a full house at Huddersfield's Alfred McAlpine Stadium this afternoon.

Victory would guarantee Birmingham the Second Division championship and the one automatic promotion place - the only issue, other than the small matter of the play-offs, still unresolved as the Endsleigh League reaches its final weekend. A draw would suffice, provided second-placed Brentford do not win by four goals at Bristol Rovers.

The intrigue is deepened by the fact that Rovers, with the division's best home record, are vying with Huddersfield and Crewe to finish third, giving them the second leg of the play-off semi-final at home. That, however, is not even the half of it. "Keep Right On To The End Of The Road" is the St Andrews' anthem; as a Birmingham Post headline suggested this week, "road" might just as well be replaced by "season".

Fry became the master of the dramatic denouement at Barnet. Once they were pipped at the post by a Scarborough side managed by Neil Warnock, who now lies in wait at Huddersfield.

When he did lead Barnet into the League, it was via a final-day fightback at Fisher, followed 12 months later by a win at York which shoehorned them into the play-offs. Even after the parting of the ways, Fry kept Southend up at the last.

At the end of Fry's first term at Birmingham, 12 months ago, they won at Tranmere, but were doomed to the drop by West Bromwich Albion's success at Portsmouth. A year earlier, survival was secured by beating Charlton.

The previous season, by strange coincidence, Terry Cooper's team had gone into the final match two points clear at the top of the old Third Division, only to be overhauled by... Brentford.

The Bristol Rovers manager, John Ward, stands by his pre-season prediction of a happy ending for Fry. "Blues have got the best squad, best team, best ground and best support," he said. "Yet it's still going to take them 46 games to win the title, which is a tribute to the other clubs for pushing them so hard."

Another of Fry's frantic finales saw Barnet locked in a battle to escape the Vauxhall Conference with Darlington, who were at that time under Brian Little's stewardship. Fry lost out, but come August, he could be competing on level terms with his old adversary in the First Division.

Little's bid to halt Aston Villa's two-year slide from runners-up to relegation candidates continues before a sell-out crowd at home to Liverpool. The Villa manager is hoping that Ugo Ehiogu's slam-dunk goal against Manchester City in midweek is a sign that their luck has turned just in time.

Crystal Palace, betrayed by bad goalkeeping at Southampton, have Nigel Martyn fit to face West Ham. As well as being desperate for three points themselves, Palace will be looking for Alan Ball's side to do them a favour at Everton and for a Liverpool win.

Norwich - spectacular 4-0 victors on their last appearance at Leeds - return to Elland Road needing a point to maintain a realistic chance of staying up. It could mean the difference between having everything and nothing to play for against Villa a week tomorrow.

The championship race, officially a two-horse affair again, resumes tomorrow, when Manch- ester United must be fancied to intensify the pressure on a faltering Blackburn by beating Sheffield Wednesday at home and narrowing the gap to two points.

Wednesday, however, are not yet mathematically safe, just as Blackburn's opponents on Monday, Newcastle, are striving to hold off the challenge of Leeds and Tottenham for the Uefa Cup berth that comes with fifth place. It is almost as if Barry Fry had been allowed to programme the fixture computer.

Glenn Moore on a day in the life of a Premiership referee, page 46