Time for pride and passion in relegation zone

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The Independent Online
The last thing beleaguered managers need at this stage of the season is time to dwell on their problems so the international-induced break in the Premiership last weekend was about as welcome as British mince in Brussels. For Alan Ball, the spell of inactivity, has weighed particularly heavy.

It is a fortnight since Manchester City last played during which time Ball's position has come under scrutiny in the media even if it has not at Maine Road. Yesterday he received a vote of, well you would have called it confidence if the chairman, Francis Lee, had not been so anxious to avoid it being described as such.

Lee countered claims that the manager's position was discussed by the City directors at yesterday's meeting of the club's powerful plc board, saying: "I don't know where these stories come from and I don't want to comment about it. I had 18 months of this when people were trying to stir up trouble for previous manager Brian Horton.

"I'm not going to have it again so far as Ball is concerned. If Alan Ball is here in two, three or four years' time and someone asks me the same question I would say I am not talking about it because the answer always gets misconstrued."

Nevertheless Ball will be facing relegation in his first season at Maine Road if City lose at Aston Villa today and other results conspire against them. A goal difference of minus 26 (compared to Southampton's minus 19 and Coventry's minus 20) will ensure that.

Their main hope is that Villa, already assured of a place in Europe by winning the Coca-Cola Cup, might be less than committed although yesterday Paul McGrath, the Villa centre-back, was offering the slimmest of lifelines on that score.

"We owe it to the other teams to give it our best," he said. "I know exactly how City must be feeling at the moment as we went through the same problem with relegation worries last season. I feel sorry for the City lads but they have to get themselves out of this mess and they can expect no favours from Villa."

The sentiment will be echoed by Southampton whose own dart for safety will be at the expense of Bolton's Premiership existence if they are successful at Burnden Park. They could be hamstrung by injuries to Jim Magilton and Simon Charlton and will definitely be hindered by the suspension of Barry Venison.

As a consequence Southampton's plans are awry, their manager, Dave Merrington, admitting: "The injury worries make it rather difficult to plan our teamwork. I want to prepare us to play a certain way but that is not possible if I have not got the personnel."

Ron Atkinson, Merrington's Coventry counterpart, would be tempted to say: "Tell me about it." Brian Borrows, David Busst, Liam Daish and David Rennie are already out of the trip to Wimbledon and Kevin Richardson is doubtful after suffering a bang on a knee in training.

With his resources stretched Atkinson called upon those perennial substitutes for managers in his position, pride and passion. "No matter who plays, I expect the team to show pride and passion," he said. "We fought back magnificently to get a 3-3 draw when we were down to nine men against Wimbledon earlier in the season."

While attention is on the bottom of the Premiership today, the top will be in focus tomorrow in a double form. Manchester United can take advantage of Newcastle's television-enforced break until Monday by extending their lead at the top of the Premiership to six points by defeating Nottingham Forest while the team who will accompany Sunderland from the First Division could be decided at the Baseball Ground.

Derby will definitely be in the Premiership next season if they can defeat the team immediately behind them, Crystal Palace, but if the result goes the other way the outcome will be delayed until the final day of the season.

The managers, Jim Smith and Dave Bassett, probably have their game plans, too, but with so much at stake it is unlikely the players will remember them. It is a story that will be repeated throughout football this weekend.

How they stand in the battles for success and survival

Premiership

P W D L F A GD Pts

Man Utd 36 23 7 6 65 35 +30 76

Newcastle 35 23 4 8 63 35 +28 73

Liverpool 35 19 9 7 67 32 +35 66

Aston Villa 36 18 9 9 52 33 +19 63

Arsenal 35 16 10 9 46 30 +16 58

Blackburn 36 17 6 13 57 44 +13 57

Tottenham 35 15 11 9 45 35 +10 56

Everton 36 15 10 11 58 42 +16 55

Nottm Forest 35 14 12 9 46 48 -2 54

West Ham 36 14 8 14 42 48 -6 50

Chelsea 36 12 13 11 43 40 +3 49

Middlesbrough 36 11 10 15 35 46 -11 43

Leeds 35 12 6 17 39 53 -14 42

Wimbledon 36 10 10 16 55 68 -13 40

Sheff Wed 36 10 9 17 45 55 -10 39

Southampton 36 8 10 18 33 52 -19 34

Coventry 36 7 13 16 40 60 -20 34

Man City 36 8 10 18 30 56 -26 34

QPR 36 8 6 22 35 54 -19 30

Bolton 36 8 5 23 38 68 -30 29

Remaining fixtures

TODAY: Aston Villa v Manchester City; Blackburn v Arsenal; Bolton v Southampton; Liverpool v Middlesbrough; QPR v West Ham; Sheffield Wednesday v Everton; Tottenham v Chelsea; Wimbledon v Coventry.

TOMORROW: Manchester Utd v Nottingham Forest

MONDAY: Leeds v Newcastle

WEDNESDAY: Arsenal v Liverpool.

THURSDAY: Leeds v Tottenham; Nottingham Forest v Newcastle.

SUNDAY 5 MAY: Arsenal v Bolton; Chelsea v Blackburn; Coventry v Leeds; Everton v Aston Villa; Manchester City v Liverpool; Middlesbrough v Manchester Utd; Newcastle v Tottenham; Nottingham Forest v Queen's Park Rangers; Southampton v Wimbledon; West Ham v Sheffield Wednesday.

First Division

P W D L F A Pts

Sunderland (P) 44 22 16 6 59 31 82

Derby 44 20 16 8 67 47 76

Crystal Palace 44 20 15 9 66 45 75

Stoke 43 18 13 12 56 45 67

Charlton 43 16 18 9 53 43 66

Leicester 44 17 14 13 62 60 65

Ipswich 43 17 11 15 76 68 62

Huddersfield 43 17 11 15 60 55 62

Port Vale 43 15 14 14 55 59 59

Birmingham 44 15 13 16 60 59 58

Sheff Utd 44 15 13 16 53 53 58

Southend 44 15 13 16 51 59 58

West Brom 43 15 10 18 56 65 55

Barnsley 43 13 16 14 55 63 55

Tranmere 43 13 15 15 61 59 54

Norwich 44 13 15 16 57 53 54

Grimsby 44 14 12 18 53 67 54

Wolverhampton 43 13 14 16 55 58 53

Millwall 44 13 12 19 41 60 51

Reading 43 11 17 15 49 59 50

Portsmouth 44 12 13 19 60 68 49

Oldham 43 12 13 18 50 49 49

Watford 44 9 18 17 60 68 45

Luton 43 10 12 21 36 58 42

Remaining fixtures

TODAY: Grimsby v Tranmere; Leicester v Birmingham; Luton v Barnsley; Millwall v Stoke; Norwich v Watford; Port Vale v Charlton; Portsmouth v Ipswich; Reading v Sheffield Utd; Southend v Oldham; Sunderland v West Brom; Wolverhampton v Huddersfield.

TOMORROW: Derby v Crystal Palace.

TUESDAY: Barnsley v West Brom; Charlton v Tranmere; Luton v Port Vale ; Oldham v Stoke ; Reading v Wolverhampton.

WEDNESDAY: Ipswich v Huddersfield.

SUNDAY 5 May*: Barnsley v Grimsby; Birmingham v Reading; Charlton v Wolverhampton; Crystal Palace v Norwich City; Huddersfield v Portsmouth; Ipswich v Millwall; Oldham v Luton; Sheffield Utd v Port Vale; Stoke v Southend; Tranmere v Sunderland; Watford v Leicester; WBA v Derby County.

(* clubs may switch matches to Saturday if not involved in promotion or relegation issues)

Second Division

P W D L F A Pts

Swindon (P) 43 24 15 4 68 32 87

Blackpool 44 22 13 9 64 38 79

Oxford Utd 44 22 11 11 70 38 77

Notts County 44 20 15 9 59 38 75

Crewe 43 21 7 15 73 55 70

Wrexham 44 17 16 11 75 53 67

Bristol Rovers 44 19 10 15 55 57 67

Bradford 43 20 6 17 65 65 66

Stockport 44 18 12 14 59 47 66

Chesterfield 43 18 12 13 54 49 66

Walsall 43 16 12 15 53 42 60

Wycombe 44 14 15 15 58 57 57

Bristol City 44 14 15 15 50 55 57

Rotherham 44 14 14 16 51 57 56

Bournemouth 44 15 10 19 49 68 55

Brentford 44 14 13 17 40 47 55

Shrewsbury 44 13 14 17 56 66 53

Peterborough 43 12 13 18 55 59 49

York 43 12 13 18 55 69 49

Burnley 43 12 13 18 51 64 49

Carlisle 44 11 13 20 55 67 46

Swansea 44 10 14 20 41 74 44

Brighton (R) 44 10 10 24 44 64 40

Hull (R) 44 5 16 23 33 72 31

Remaining fixtures

TODAY: Blackpool v Walsall; Bournemouth v Chesterfield; Brighton v York; Bristol City v Rotherham; Crewe v Oxford Utd; Notts County v Swansea; Peterborough v Hull; Shrewsbury v Swindon; Stockport v Bristol Rovers; Wrexham v Burnley; Wycombe v Carlisle.

TUESDAY: Bradford v Swindon; Crewe v Peterborough; Walsall v Burnley; York v Chesterfield.

SATURDAY 4 May: Brentford v Bournemouth; Bristol Rovers v Wycombe; Burnley v Shrewsbury; Carlisle v Bristol City; Chesterfield v Notts County; Hull v Bradford; Oxford Utd v Peterborough; Rotherham v Wrexham; Swansea v Crewe; Swindon v Stockport; Walsall v Brighton; York v Blackpool.

Third Division

P W D L F A Pts

Preston 44 21 17 6 74 38 80

Gillingham 44 21 16 7 48 20 79

Bury 44 21 12 11 62 47 75

Darlington 44 19 17 8 54 38 74

Plymouth 44 20 12 12 64 49 72

Wigan 44 20 10 14 60 52 70

Hereford 43 18 14 11 57 43 68

Chester 44 17 16 11 69 49 67

Barnet 44 17 15 12 59 42 66

Colchester 44 16 18 10 58 50 66

Northampton 44 17 12 15 48 42 63

Scunthorpe 44 14 14 16 60 57 56

Doncaster 44 15 11 18 47 58 56

Exeter 44 13 17 14 45 50 56

Rochdale 44 14 13 17 57 58 55

Mansfield 44 11 20 13 52 60 53

Fulham 44 12 16 16 57 60 52

Lincoln 44 12 13 19 51 72 49

Hartlepool 43 12 13 18 46 58 49

Cambridge Utd 44 12 12 20 56 71 48

Leyton Orient 44 12 10 22 41 58 46

Cardiff 44 10 12 22 38 59 42

Scarborough 44 8 16 20 38 64 40

Torquay 44 5 14 25 30 76 29

Remaining fixtures

TODAY:. Cardiff v Hereford; Darlington v Chester; Doncaster v Wigan; Exeter v Bury; Fulham v Gillingham; Hartlepool v Preston; Leyton Orient v Barnet; Mansfield v Colchester; Northampton v Lincoln; Rochdale v Plymouth; Scarborough v Scunthorpe; Torquay v Cambridge Utd.

TUESDAY: Hereford v Hartlepool.

SATURDAY 4 May: Barnet v Fulham; Bury v Cardiff; Cambridge Utd v Leyton Orient; Chester v Mansfield; Colchester v Doncaster; Gillingham v Scarborough; Hereford v Rochdale; Lincoln v Torquay; Plymouth v Hartlepool; Preston v Exeter; Scunthorpe v Darlington; Wigan v Northampton.

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