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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 30/04/03, 7.45pm
Highbury in August?
By Matt Rowson

And so the season comes to a close, with two home games against play-off contenders Reading and Sheffield United.

Which, on at least two levels, is a sentence which would have borne little credibility at the start of the season. First and foremost, the fact that a rearranged home tie with Reading implies that either ourselves or the Royals were going to make the F.A. Cup Semi-Finals. Given the financial snakepit that we've dragged ourselves out of, not to mention our recent Cup record, you'd have had to fancy the latter of the two as being more likely... but still a bit of a long shot.

Secondly, the status of Reading as "play-off contenders"... and not just contenders, but definite participants with two games still to go. Even the Royals themselves didn't really expect anything better than a solid midtable finish... only three of the twenty-five Reading fans who participated in our pre-season survey predicted a play-off place. (Note further that this proportion of football fans will typically be the sort to predict Champions League victory for their side, whatever Division they happen to be in.) Nor was there much evidence to be taken from our match at the Madejski Stadium earlier in the season to back up a promotion claim... except perhaps that the Royals put in a so-so performance, rode their luck a little and won anyway. Not a bad trick.

In any event, the table doesn't lie and the Royals have been cemented in the top six for long enough to prove their point. We know only too well, however, the difficulties inherent in getting to the Premiership on the back of two successive promotions with a (relatively) limited squad and barely two months to beef it up a bit. You'd fear for Reading if they actually made it but not begrudge them the chance, particularly if they managed to dump Wolves on their arses again on the way through.

From next season of course the goalposts are moving again; if proposed plans are confirmed, almost half the division will either be up, down or in the play-off mix at the end of the campaign.

Now, the cases for and against the play-offs are fairly well defined.

Pro: The season remains alive for many more clubs for much longer. It's rare now that many teams have nothing left to play for by February, that didn't use to be the case. It's not as if clubs in the Nationwide really need to have three months of meaningless fixtures as another obstacle in persuading potential supporters away from armchair-Premiershipdom and other alternative pursuits. So you extend interest and generate a thrilling climax to the season with a trip to Cardiff in something far more meaningful than the Auto-Windscreens (or whatever) for the lucky few tens of thousands.

Anti: You kinda have to wonder how "fair" it is that a side can bomb away in third place and not quite make the top two, and then lose a promotion place to a side that squeaked into sixth a number of points below them. And how viable will survival be in a higher division for a side that could only finish sixth in any case... particularly when spanning the Premiership - Nationwide chasm. It's true that everybody knows the score at the start of the season, and also that the "Anti" arguments tend to get voiced by the team that finished third at roughly the same time of year with tedious predictability, but the argument is pretty clear.

For me, the Pro outweighs the Anti several times over. The Play-offs are a Good Thing, all-in-all. But I see little logic in the proposed changes. What do you gain by including the seventh and eighth placed clubs? Very little. The season might last slightly longer, for a small number of clubs every season. You also introduce a fašade of meritocracy to proceedings by virtue of the contrived staggering of advantage to teams finishing higher but let's face it, if that were of prime concern you'd go back to three-up/three-down and forget all this nonsense.

The anti- case is much stronger in the extension, admitting as it does the possibility of a mid-table side gaining promotion. Again, we have direct experience (to our ultimate benefit) of the fact that the play-offs favour the side in form, and differences in level of achievement over the duration of a season pale into irrelevance in the face of performance in the last couple of months. (And not having a manager who loses his bottle under pressure helps too, but I digress...). Under the new proposals, a side could go on a late run to emerge from the bottom half of the table and end up in the Premiership. The current eighth-placed side in Div 1, Norwich, are hardly a case in point having been there or thereabouts all season, but look at the sides just below them to whom the carrot might have been offered. Preston? Bloody hell. Palace? Christ. Trev might still be in a job. Watford? Wonderful as that might be subjectively, the fact is that we've conceded three goals or more on eight occasions away from home this season. More than a third of our away games. In Division One. Highbury in August, anyone?

The Royals need a win from their last two games to guarantee a top four finish and home advantage in the second leg of their play-off semi. With a final game away at Stoke which has wider relevance - not least to Reading boss Alan Pardew's old Palace mate Steve Coppell, whose Brighton side have also fielded two current Reading players this season - Wednesday might be the game in which players are rested.

Marcus Hahnemann should be in goal for the Royals. The big American saved a penalty at the Madejski and has won plaudits this season, voted the Division's best keeper in a straw poll of supporters in the Observer recently. Former Arsenal trainee Jamie Ashdown is his cover, with one-time first-choice Phil Whitehead on loan at York.

At the back, Reading's defensive record has been a strength - only Leicester and Wolves have conceded fewer - but the central defensive pairing that kept us out in November is likely to be absent this time. Matthew Upson ended his loan from Highbury and then moved to Birmingham City, whilst Adrian Williams went off with a thigh strain eight minutes into Saturday's win over Grimsby... one would have thought that he won't be risked if there's any doubt about his fitness.

This should leave us facing former Charlton stalwart Steve Brown and former Sutton United defender John Mackie whose suspension earlier in the season for racist comments made to Sheffield United striker Carl Asaba, albeit quickly retracted, are likely to add spice to any play-off confrontation between the sides. Veteran Adie Viveash would be the other option, but Adrian Whitbread has been finally forced to retire through injury.

The full-back positions look pretty sorted, with Graeme Murty, runner-up in this season's "Player of the Year" poll, and Nicky Shorey both popular selections at right-back and left-back respectively. Murty featured alongside the likes of Jonathan Greening and Richard Cresswell in the York City sides that we faced in Division Two.

Pardew has often opted for a packed midfield, with a fifth man operating just behind a lone striker. This role has recently gone to Glen Little, who already has two defeats to his name at Vicarage Road this season having joined the Royals on loan from Burnley shortly after our Quarter-Final. His form has been iffy since his arrival, partly due to a question-mark over how and where to accommodate him, but an early goal contributed to a decent run-out on Saturday.

Luke Chadwick is another loanee, his performances on the right have also met with a mixed response, with "lightweight" and "not quick enough" among the popular criticisms. On the left, veteran John Salako is a team-mate of Pardew's from Crystal Palace, but hot prospect Nathan Tyson would be another option here. James Harper, another former Gooner, recently picked up the "Player of the Season" prize for a much improved all-action season in midfield, whilst Ricky Newman is likely to do the same fetching-and-carrying job that he did at Palace and Millwall. Andy Hughes should make up the midfield, the former Notts.County man's habit of finding the net a big plus, even if he does tend to drift in and out of games on occasions. Steve Sidwell, also signed from Arsenal, would be another option, as would Kevin Watson whose deflected shot won our meeting in November, but Sammy Igoe has returned from Luton with an injury and Irish prospect Joe Gamble is out with a knee problem.

Up front, the popular and prodigious Nicky Forster, once a Watford target in Division Two, gets through a monumental amount of work as the lone striker. He appeared to pick up a heavy knock on Saturday so the smart money might be on him being rested on Wednesday night; Jamie Cureton, who is described as "blunter than in recent seasons", might come in as an alternative, although six-foot youngster Darius Henderson is another option. The occasionally prolific Martin Butler, who put us out of the Worthy Cup a few years back when with Cambridge, appears to be out of favour, as does former Port Vale man Anthony Rougier. The enormous Bas Savage has missed the entire season with a cruciate ligament injury.

This season has felt a lot better than last in so many ways. It would be a shame not to do it justice by finishing in a higher league position. And if we can put in another vibrant home performance so as not to leave us contemplating the abomination of last weekend over the summer, so much the better.