Sheringham ruled out as Francis feels heat

Phil Shaw says Premiership clubs are in for a tough time this weekend in third-round matches in the FA Cup
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As Ray Harford, Graeme Souness and Ossie Ardiles could all testify, Premiership managers often fall after their sides succumb to lower-division opposition in knock-out competition. It will be small consolation for Gerry Francis, whose tenure with Tottenham is under fire for the first time, that he does not have a leap into the unknown to worry about tomorrow.

All Francis has to concern himself with is the small matter of a trip to Old Trafford, home of the FA Cup holders and the perfect place to go when you have just been hit for seven at Newcastle. Defeat by Manchester United, who have beaten them twice since losing 4-1 at White Hart Lane in the opening match of 1996, could spark a crisis at Spurs, whose season would effectively be over by the half-way stage.

As if the pressure on Francis and his chairman, Alan Sugar, was not intense enough, Spurs will be without Teddy Sheringham. The England striker, who was thought likely to reconsider his future at the club in the event of an early exit, damaged an ankle in a training collision with Espen Bardesen yesterday and will be out for three weeks.

"It's a massive blow for us, definitely not what we wanted to hear," Francis said. "What makes it worse is that Chris Armstrong is still recovering from his operation, Steffen Iversen is in bed with flu and Rory Allen is doubtful with a bad back.

"On top of that, Sol Campbell hasn't been able to train all week because of an ankle problem. In fact, I've got a whole team out injured. I've looked at the list and it's quite a good side."

The number of postponed ties reached double figures yesterday, but despite the big chill it is likely to be hot enough to fire pottery at some of the venues awaiting Premiership clubs. Take the Racecourse Ground, for example, where Harry Redknapp's West Ham would be left with nothing more than a relegation fight to look forward to if they lost to Wrexham today.

The Welsh club's manager, Brian Flynn, tasted glory at the same stage five years ago when they put out the champions, Arsenal. "That game was unforgettable but what people don't remember is that we pushed West Ham mightily close in the next round, too," Flynn said.

"They know how hard it can be here. Our problem is that Stockport have already beaten them in the Coca-Cola Cup recently. To lose twice to Second Division opposition would mean big trouble for a Premier club, and they will be hell-bent on making sure it doesn't happen. But it's a one-off - we only just managed to hold Colwyn Bay to a draw in the first round, but few people would write us off."

Southampton have a similarly arduous task at Reading, itself a warm-up for the midweek meeting with Stockport in the other sudden-death competition. Their manager, Graeme Souness, will need no reminding that his reign at Liverpool ended three years ago this month after a replay defeat by Bristol City.

Nor can Newcastle, who visit Charlton tomorrow, or resurgent Blackburn, home to Port Vale, feel entirely confident. The return of Robert Lee to The Valley will serve only to inspire his old club while Vale head north heartened by last year's giant-killing of holders Everton as well as by one of the First Division's best away records.

The top-flight team most at risk, however, could again be Everton. Apart from Vale, Stockport and York have escaped unscathed from Goodison Park in the past 12 months, giving Swindon every encouragement against Joe Royle's injury-ravaged side tomorrow.

The return to the Swindon attack of Mark Walters, who will doubtless receive the welcome traditionally extended to former Liverpool players, could be significant for Steve McMahon's prospects of putting one over his first club.

Another Old Evertonian, Adrian Heath, should enjoy an interesting reception when he takes Burnley to Liverpool. Heath was at Anfield on Boxing Day when Leicester stopped the Premiership leaders by stifling Steve McManaman, though it would be asking a lot for a Second Division defender to man- mark the England attacker with quite the same discipline of an international counterpart.

Ipswich, who won a replay at Blackburn last January, will hardly be daunted by a visit to Nottingham Forest, who have won only once at home all season. Middlesbrough might even struggle to see off Chester, although the Riverside's last Third Division visitors, Hereford, did concede seven.

Meanwhile, the only non-League outfit to have beaten the elements, Stevenage, should be buoyed by the tactless comments of Birmingham's owner, David Sullivan. Announcing that his club were using hot air to defrost St Andrew's (they used to have Barry Fry but now they have a machine to do it), Sullivan tempted fate by saying he did not want to give Stevenage an advantage by playing on a sub-standard pitch.

His remarks could well end up sounding like hot air themselves. Birmingham, in case he has forgotten, have lost at home to Altrincham and Kidderminster in recent times, and have not kicked a ball in earnest for a fortnight.

In contrast, the Vauxhall Conference champions won 6-1 away on New Year's Day. Let the slay ride begin.