Plymouth plan a swift rise from the depths

THIRD DIVISION: DIVISION-BY-DIVISION: As the pressure for success builds up, Glenn Moore considers the promotion and relegation prospects
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The Independent Online
Down in the basement, where only the overdraft is counted in millions, mere survival will be the aim for some clubs, notably Exeter City, Gillingham and Doncaster Rovers, all of whom flirted with bankruptcy last season. Managers, too, will be wary, only Mike Walsh, of Bury, and Torquay's Don O'Riordan have reached two years' service.

But, for some, there are loftier aims. Thirty-five years ago Dave Whelan was carried off during the FA Cup Final while playing for Blackburn. He never played for the club again but, after retiring, invested his pounds 400 compensation in a market stall. Two successful businesses later he is a millionaire and, having been denied entry on to the board of Wigan's famed rugby league club, he is seeking to transform its less noted football team.

The club's 13-year-old transfer record has been shattered, by the pounds 87,500 purchase of defender Chris Lightfoot from Chester, and three Spaniards, including Jesus Zeba, an Under-21 international from Real Zaragoza, have been signed. With Graham Barrow, who took Chester out of this division two years ago, as manager there is know-how along with the exotic.

However, Wigan's spending pales beside that of Plymouth. The rare prospect of several local derbies was little consolation for dropping into the league's bottom section for the first time and the club is anxious not to linger.

After the unfortunate experience with Peter Shilton, Argyle have appointed a manager with a proven pedigree. Neil Warnock, fresh from taking Huddersfield into the First Division, will be seeking his fourth promotion in seven seasons.

To achieve it he has spent pounds 430,000 - almost as much as the rest of the division combined. The former Sheffield United striker, Adrian Littlejohn, looks a particularly good buy at pounds 200,000.

The likes of Barnet can only dream of such an outlay but they have held on to 29-goal Dougie Freedman, which is an achievement in itself. He, and free transfer signing Alan Pardew, make them the best outside bet. Elsewhere in the capital Jimmy Hill's Fulham have been sharpened by the addition of Preston's Mike Conroy but Barry Hearn's Leyton Orient do not appear significantly strengthened.

Free-scoring Mansfield, under the ebullient Andy King, could be worth watching despite losing top scorer Steve Wilkinson to Preston. North End have also signed Andy Saville from Birmingham and should be there at the finish. An indication of their potential was this week's announcement that they are to float a share issue.

Two strikers who have mixed it with the best, Andy Ritchie and Cyrille Regis, may be unpleasantly surprised by the standards of their teams at Scarborough and Chester, while Exeter, Hereford (already on a new manager) and Darlington will be more concerned with looking down than up. For the last two years no one has dropped out of the league as the Conference champions have been denied promotion. A third such escape is unlikely.

PREDICTIONS

PROMOTION Plymouth, Wigan, Preston PLAY-OFFS Barnet, Fulham, Bury, Lincoln RELEGATION Exeter

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