Victors head for 'purgatory'

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The Independent Online
If Sheffield United and Crystal Palace need any reminding of what is at stake in today's First Division play-off final at Wembley, they need only contemplate what has happened to Leicester City in the last 12 months.

Although Steve Claridge's winning goal in the last minute of extra time in last season's final provides painful memories for Palace, Leicester's achievements this year should provide inspiration for all Premiership aspirants. After Martin O'Neill's team had beaten a Palace sidewhich had finished two places above them, the consensus was that their stay at the top would be short and none too sweet.

However, Leicester have surpassed all expectations this year. Under O'Neill's shrewd guidance they finished ninth in the Premiership, won the Coca-Cola Cup and earned a place in Europe next season.

Like Leicester, Palace and Sheffield United are members of that class of clubs which never seem able to consolidate their place in the top flight but are usually good enough to bounce back quickly after relegation.

Palace's last sojourn in the Premiership ended two years ago, while the Blades lost their place at the cutting edge 12 months earlier. Both started this season among the favourites to return, but both have faltered along their Wembley way.

A mid-season run of bad form for Palace ended with Dave Bassett, the manager, walking out to join Nottingham Forest - the irony of Forest's subsequent relegation will not be lost on Palace supporters if their team win today - and Steve Coppell returning to manage the club he had left after their previous relegation from the Premiership. United, who won both their league matches against Palace this season, were with the front runners for most of the campaign despite a shaky start, but were less impressive in the closing weeks.

Today Palace are without the suspended Dougie Freedman, who scored two crucial goals in the semi-finals against Wolves, but United appear to have the bigger selection problems. Chris Short, the central defender, suffered an ankle injury in training last week, while Alan Kelly, the goalkeeper, has been in doubt because of a knee injury. Lance Key is on standby.

Coppell appeared to be only half-joking last week when he described the prospect of returning to the Premiership as "10 months of purgatory". However, as Howard Kendall, his United counterpart, observed, the alternative is even less appealing. "The First Division will become increasingly more difficult to get out of because the teams who are relegated will have become increasingly stronger due to the finances they have had while they have been in the Premiership," he said.