`Mickey Mouse' Cup finalists laugh their way to the bank

Measured in terms of the 76,000 crowd expected at Wembley, tomorrow's Auto Windscreens Shield final is as big a match as Britain will stage this season. The attendance is set to top the figure for last month's Coca-Cola Cup final, itself more than double the gate for England's last game.

Birmingham City are bringing 48,000 supporters and Carlisle United a following of 26,000; not bad for the so-called Mickey Mouse Trophy. Size is not everything, however, and although the clubs will each bank at least £400,000 in receipts, the game has come as something of a distraction for the champions-elect of the Second and Third Divisions.

Next Wednesday, 72 hours after their fourth match in nine days, Birmingham receive Brentford, who are level on points and one goal behind them at the top of the Second. Their manager, Barry Fry, calls the League game a "bigger, bigger, bigger match - a real cup final".

Mick Wadsworth, Carlisle's "director of coaching", expected to have promotion wrapped up by the time they made their Wembley debut, and it remains a formality despite two Easter defeats. So the tackles may not be as fierce as anticipated, a factor which could enhance a spectacle already rich in attacking promise

Fry and Wadsworth, "failed" players with 35 League appearances between them, are differing characters. One is gregarious and impulsive, the other a phlegmatic tactician. Yet they share a faith in flair: Blues' would have included two old-style wingers had Portugal Under-21s not called up Jose Dominguez, while the Cumbrians' front three are as skilful as any in the lower divisions.

The dreadlocked Rod Thomas returns in Carlisle's "deckchair" stripes to the flanks he graced as an outstanding if unfulfilled schoolboy talent. Although his partners, David Currie and David Reeves, boast top-flight experience with Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday respectively, their opposite numbers Steve Claridge and Kevin Francis are more prolific scorers.

Even with so many potential match-winners, central defence is the platform on which both teams have built their success. Birmingham's captain, Liam Daish, has been released by the Republic of Ireland, and the comparison with Carlisle's linchpin, the former Leeds apprentice Dean Walling, should be instructive.

Whatever the outcome - and who outside Swansea remembers the result of last year's final - it is the fans' day out. Carlisle rugby league club, sensing they might be on a loser at the turnstiles, have switched their fixture to Gateshead. A roll-call might be advisable when they arrive.

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