Sunderland ready to board the Premiership

Phil Shaw on the best of the action this weekend in the Endsleigh League
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The Independent Online
As Manchester City take an enforced break from the scramble to avoid relegation, the paths of two talents that were dubiously deemed surplus to their requirements cross in one of the First Division's key confrontations.

For weeks, City supporters have been bracing themselves for the bitter- sweet irony of Peter Reid - sacked as manager by Peter Swales two and a half years ago despite twice taking them to fifth place among the elite - leading Sunderland into the Premiership in place of their own club.

The first half of the equation will come to fruition today, without Sunderland kicking a ball, if third-placed Crystal Palace do not win at Wolverhampton. Whatever happens there, Reid's side can clinch promotion at Roker Park tomorrow simply by taking a point from Stoke.

The presence of a second Maine Road "reject" should ensure that there is nothing simple about it. Mike Sheron's finishing prowess made him an England Under-21 cap under Reid's tutelage and City's top scorer for Brian Horton until the advent of Uwe Rosler. A pounds 1m move to Norwich did not work out, but Sheron's 13 goals in 19 starts for Stoke suggests Lou Macari got the better of the exchange deal for Keith Scott.

Sheron forms half of a highly mobile Endsleigh SAS with Simon Sturridge. His stunning winner in the midweek six-pointer with Charlton, which lifted Stoke to fourth, made him the first Potters' player ever to score in seven consecutive games. Sunderland, however, have been busy on the club-record front themselves.

A total of 24 clean sheets is two better than their previous best, and if they remain unbeaten for a 17th League match it will represent the best sequence in their 117 years. Suddenly, the moneybags of Newcastle and Middlesbrough are not having things all their own way in the North- east.

Like Kevin Keegan, Reid had to beat the drop into the third grade before becoming upwardly mobile. The similarity ends there, Sunderland having spent comparative petty cash on new recruits. And, like Bryan Robson, he has a new ground on the horizon. The snappily titled Monkwearmouth stadium, which will eventually seat 40,000, opens in August next year.

Whether Sunderland are back in the First by then, as the cynical world beyond Wearside seems to expect, depends largely on the sum at Reid's disposal and how he uses it. The chief executive, John Fickling, promises "more money than any manager in our history". The talk locally is of pounds 10m.

As Reid awaits the profits of boom, Barry Fry, manager of Roker's latest victims, Birmingham, takes issue with the prophets of doom. "Sunderland were too good for us, too strong, too aggressive and too clever. They're solid at the back, creative and mobile all over the park and believe they're going to win. When they're not in possession, they get behind the ball. When they win it, they bomb forward.

"They're champions by a mile and they'll consolidate their position in the Premiership - even without Reidy adding to the squad."

That may be daydream believing, to quote the Monkees song that has bizarrely become a Roker anthem, but the champions-elect are brimming with ability. Paul Bracewell is the manager's eyes and ears on the pitch; Michael Gray hit an awesome long-range goal against Birmingham in front of the Fulwell End on which he used to stand; and Paul Stewart is at last recognisable as the striker who twice fetched pounds 2m, though he is now suspended.

Today, while Reid joins a rare all-ticket crowd at Darlington for the Third Division promotion battle against one of his former employers, Bury, Fry goes from the frying pan to the mire that is the Baseball Ground. Derby, who receive Palace in a crunch match next weekend, should edge closer to the second automatic promotion place at the expense of Birmingham, who last won away six months ago.

The pre-season favourites, Wolves, lie 18th yet safe, but Palace cannot expect to encounter end-of-season languor as they seek a first League win at Molineux since their first visit in 1921. Mark McGhee has warned his squad that they are playing to avoid his summer purge, while the fact that Wolves' last four fixtures are all against clubs in the thick of the play-off and relegation issues should concentrate minds.

In the Second Division's match of the season, Swindon will become champions if they triumph at Blackpool, the only team who can still catch them. A draw would be enough to secure the Wiltshire side's elevation - and a change of status for the fifth year running - in Steve McMahon's first full campaign as player-manager.

McMahon was on Manchester City's books during Reid's reign - which, in retrospect, increasingly resembles a golden age at Maine Road.

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