Potteries power struggle threatens to break mould

Phil Shaw looks at the outstanding matches in today's league programme
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The Independent Online
While the fat cats are away, the fight for a share of the Premiership cream next season rages on, though a different kind of power struggle provides the intriguing backdrop to the match likely to attract today's biggest crowd.

Port Vale, whose First Division safety is not yet secure, step into the kiln-hot clamour of a Potteries derby at Stoke City with the future of their manager, John Rudge, seemingly in the balance. Rudge is in his 12th year in charge, making him the League's longest-serving manager after Crewe's Dario Gradi, but it has emerged that Vale's chairman, Bill Bell, recently tried to have his position discussed by an emergency board meeting.

Bell's fellow directors refused to convene, with the vice-chairman David Bundy making public his opposition to a change. Adding a twist to the affair during the build-up to this most parochial of confrontations, a wealthy ex-Stoke director, Bob Kenyon, is reportedly preparing to buy his way into Vale. His backing would be conditional on Rudge continuing as manager.

The popular Rudge could hardly be sacked if Vale prevailed today, though they have not beaten their neighbours away in the League since 1927. Lou Macari, already annoyed at losing Toddy Orlygsson to Iceland's friendly with Chile, will also be without Zay Angola, Stoke's exotic capture from Portugal, who suffered a broken leg at Swindon on Monday.

Swindon, in 21st place, travel to Sunderland, where defeat by the team one rung higher would open up a nine-point gap and virtually condemn them to a second successive demotion. At least Steve McMahon will not have to tangle with Peter Reid, an old ally in Everton's midfield, who is concentrating on guiding his new charges from the touchline. Swindon are seeking only their second success in 10 trips to Wearside.

In another fixture for which "six-pointer" might have been invented, Burnley (22nd) play host to Portsmouth (19th). A home win would narrow the gap to four points with each club having two games left; a Pompey victory could make them safe, 10 points clear of the bottom four. Turf Moor, like the Victoria Ground and Roker Park, may not be a place for the squeamish.

Three of the top five played last night, leaving the likes of Middlesbrough and Wolverhampton Wanderers in no doubt as to what is required of them this afternoon. Both Bryan Robson and Graham Taylor follow the campaign trail to south Yorkshire, where they are likely to encounter as stern a test of their credentials for automatic promotion as the fixture computer could have conjured.

Boro need to beat sixth-placed Barnsley - themselves starting a run of three home matches - after dropping four points over Easter. Wolves, who have already collected more points under Graham Taylor than in any of their previous six seasons at this level, must make Sheffield United the first of four straight wins to maintain any chance of the championship.

In the Second, Brentford take on relegation-bound Cardiff aware that they need three points, embellished by several goals, to keep the heat on Birmingham, who are otherwise engaged at Wembley. Should they fail - and the already-doomed Chester led from the fourth minute to the 89th at Griffin Park a week ago - Huddersfield can regain the leadership by winning at Shrewsbury.

There is plenty of mileage left in this promotion race. Brentford go to Birmingham in midweek, while Barry Fry's team, one of the few ever to want to avoid a second trip to Wembley because it would mean they had become embroiled in the purgatory of the play-offs, finish the regular season at Huddersfield.