Portents good for Palace coup

Phil Shaw looks at the clubs chasing promotion through the play- offs
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The Independent Online
According to the sages and statistics, the four sides striving for promotion to the Premiership are wasting their time turning up for the 10th running of the play-off stakes.

Conventional wisdom maintains that a club not good enough to gain automatic promotion from the First Division need to spend between pounds 10m and pounds 20m to survive. Of the past six play-off winners, only Blackburn, to whom such sums are small change, have not suffered instant relegation.

None of which will prevent tomorrow's semi-final, first-leg matches being among the most fiercely contested of the season. Since the play-offs are in essence cup-ties, especially the one-off Wembley finals, it is unsurprising that League form tends to count for little.

Ignoring the first two years, when matters were confused by mixing one relegation-threatened side in with three aspiring to upward mobility, just eight of the 21 winners of the divisional finals have been the clubs who finished highest.

That may have been a worrying portent for Crystal Palace but for the fact that when they came third in 1989, they went on to win the final. Palace's hosts, Charlton, are also play-off veterans, having stayed up at Leeds' expense in the inaugural season.

As if a derby with so much at stake was not going to be tense enough, it will take place against a backdrop of bitterness. Resentment that built up when they shared Selhurst Park has been revived by a row over tickets for Wednesday's second leg.

Palace allocated their neighbours only 2,900, claiming they were unable to offer 25 per cent of their capacity, as laid down in League rules, because of police concerns about segregation. The Charlton Athletic Supporters' Club planned to seek an injunction stopping the game, but backed down yesterday because they feared uncertainty over the fixture might harm their team's preparations.

However, the CASC secretary, Rick Everitt, said many Charlton followers had bought tickets independently, which could lead to their ending up in home sections of the ground. He held Palace "fully responsible for any problems that could arise", adding that the police had told him they had neither discussed the matter with Palace, nor been aware of the 25 per cent stipulation.

The other First Division semi-final, at Filbert Street, pits a Leicester side who won six and drew one of the final eight games against Stoke, unbeaten in seven. Yet in terms of resources, the contrast is stark. Martin O'Neill splashed pounds 2m on Neil Lennon and Steve Claridge, whereas Lou Macari's sole outlay for cash-strapped Stoke was pounds 150,000 to top up the swap which secured Mike Sheron.

The former Norwich striker's scoring streak - 15 goals in 22 starts - has capped an upsurge in Stoke's fortunes. Macari, whose limited options include his son, Mike, rejected an invitation to take part in a penalty shoot-out before the FA Cup final. "It's a long way to go for one shot," he reasoned, "and we need to concentrate on getting to Wembley ourselves."

In the Second Division semi-finals, Crewe are appearing in the play-offs for the fourth season in five. While they have yet to emerge triumphant, their opponents, Notts County, went up two years running at Wembley. Psychological factors may also influence the outcome between Bradford City, who finished the regular season on a high, and Blackpool, who blew out badly.

Neil Warnock, who presided over both Notts County's play-off successes and led Huddersfield up by the same route last May, takes Plymouth to Colchester for a sell-out Third Division affair. The only play-off virgins among the 12 clubs involved, Hereford and Darlington, lock horns next to the cattle market at Edgar Street.