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The Play-Off Race

By: Richard Lord
Date: 19/04/2002

LOOKING through the league tables as they stand, most promotion and relegation issues look to have been settled already, ridding the nervous tensions for clubs in the mire and those who are looking over their shoulders for promotion.

Grimsby will be relieved that the three First Division teams who will suffer the drop are already down (albeit Crewe need to beat Rotherham 10-0 to stay up). Bournemouth are praying for Notts County to lose so the Cherries can stay up in Division Two.

Cheltenham are just about assured of promotion from Division Three barring a poor home result on Saturday, with Luton and Plymouth already guaranteeing their promotion to the Second Division.

Halifax are preparing for another season in the Football Conference, and Scunthorpe are outsiders to snatch the last play-off place in the Third Division. Even in the Premiership the bottom three look likeliest to be relegated.

However it is the promotion race in Division One that is the most interesting issue this weekend. One of the two giant Midlands clubs will gain promotion to the lucrative Premiership but there is only one point in it.

Even the four play-off places are being rigorously contested for between five teams, six if you include either Wolves or West Brom, depending on who doesn't get promoted.

Preston are outsiders but have a good goal difference, even fourth placed Millwall aren't certain of their play-off spot. If results went against them, they could finish outside the top six.

There is everything to play for at The New Den on Sunday, and Grimsby manager Paul Groves has already stated that he has no intention of 'resting' first-team players and giving the youngsters a run-out. That would simply be unfair to all the other teams competing for a play-off place.

It is so tight in and around the play-offs, that Lee Briscoe's late consolation goal at Blundell Park last week was the difference between sixth and seventh place for the Claret and Blues.

Norwich have an almost certain 'home banker' against doomed Stockport County this weekend, while Burnley have to play manager-less Coventry at home. If both sides win, then whoever wins by the bigger margin on the day will be rewarded with a top-six spot.

Millwall are the most secure team in the top six right now, but a defeat at home to Grimsby in front of an expectant crowd - and wins for Birmingham, Norwich and Burnley - could dump the Lions out of the play-offs.

Birmingham will be expected to beat Sheffield United at St Andrews on Sunday, and Burnley will fancy their chances at home to Coventry. Norwich should beat Stockport at home so it means Millwall won't be taking the game lightly against the Mariners.

However a point for the South London side would suffice because of their superior goal difference. Millwall's home record is extremely impressive but so is Grimsby's late run of form.

A defeat for the Lions on their home ground against a lowly team who have nothing to play for would not go down well with the locals, especially if Norwich, Burnley and Birmingham all win in the meantime.

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