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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 10/04/04, 3.00pm
Crewe Alexandra
This is it
By Matt Rowson

This is it, then. As if heralded by the two week break generated by Millwall's cup exploits, this is the beginning of the end of the season. For the past couple of months or so, the eight notquiteaspitifulasfranchiseorbradfordbutstillprettyrubbish contenders for the last relegation spot have been milling around indecisively, like musical chairs contestants at a kids' party feigning nonchalance as the tired parent's finger hovers over the pause button on the stereo. The fact that we moved upwards in the league this weekend for only the second time since the end of February without actually playing a game speaks volumes.

But now, the serious business starts. Forest have been the first to attempt to grab a chair, Joe Kinnear thumping himself down decisively and scowling at his rivals who had kinda hoped that he'd be the one ducking out this round. The amorphous mass from fifteenth to twenty-second appears to be stretching itself out for the first time.

Derby's last minute defeat to Walsall was a Very Good Thing. Either side dropping points is kinda handy, of course, but for Derby's increasingly and annoyingly solidifying home record to be shattered by a dodgy last minute penalty scored by a rejected Derby loanee and invoking a red card could hardly have been scripted better. This was their first home defeat of 2004, and they are this week's wearers of the Team That The Other Seven Want To Lose mantle... perhaps the club most likely to, but we can't be complacent. They have Bradford at home on Monday, and Franchise away on the final day of the season.

It doesn't feel quite right that Crewe (H) seems to be the most important game of the campaign, bearing all the awkwardness of an Arthur Dent in the grand scheme of things, not quite sure what it's doing there but positive that it's not supposed to be this significant. That the club have elected this one a "Super Saver" only adds to the confusion. However, as the most winnable of our remaining fixtures, and preceding as it does three away games on the hop it's a game that we just have to take three points from. That's as complicated as it gets.

Alex have been on shaky form since the turn of the year, only recently arresting a slide that saw them win one game in nine to slide from ninth on Boxing Day to the edge of the relegation dogfight. The last two performances, a 2-0 defeat at the City Ground and a 0-0 draw at home to Rotherham, have not been impressive and a lack of creativity is an unusual criticism being thrown at Gradi's side. With experienced players returning from injury however, you'd bet on Alex, already on forty-eight points, surviving... even if it's not the "formality" that one website already claims.

With Clayton Ince missing with a thigh injury, Ben Williams has arrived on loan from Manchester United and impressed enormously. Ademole Bankole, already loaned to Barnet recently, is expected to be on his way in the summer but should be the back-up keeper for the moment.

At right-back, the return from a month out with a thigh injury of stand-in skipper David Wright is significant. This prompted versatile but defensive Billy Jones, only recently seventeen, being moved to left-back, allowing Welsh international David Vaughan, perhaps Alex's most consistent performer, to push forward to left midfield. Cornishman Anthony Tonkin can also fill in at left back.

In the centre, Stephen Foster is a mainstay and in a side that isn't particularly tall provides a regular focus for attacking set pieces. At the weekend he was partnered by the experienced Adie Moses, who has Premiership experience with Barnsley, although Richard Walker and Chris McCready, who provided a comical focus for forty-five minutes of our game at Gresty Road, are also options.

In midfield, the tigerish Justin Cochrane has been partnering the defensive Neil Sorvel in the centre, however team captain Dave Brammer was on the bench at the weekend following five months out with a pelvic injury - Sorvel is the more likely to give way if he is deemed fit enough to start.

In wide positions, Kenny Lunt has been playing on the right but has failed to maintain good early season form and has become a target for Crewe's boo-boys. Should Vaughan drop back to fullback, likeliest replacements on the left are the quick-footed Ben Rix and the less quick-footed Craig Hignett, back on loan at Gresty Road twelve years after leaving but failing to set the team alight as yet.

Up front, the bullish Dean Ashton is consistently linked with a move away from Gresty Road... the twenty year old is just one goal away from his fiftieth senior goal (he said, hoping to pull the old double-bluff on the tempting fate thing). He should be partnered by Steve Jones after the Northern Ireland striker was rested against Rotherham having returned tired from international duty. Jones has sixteen goals this season, but a brace in a defeat at Upton Park are his only strikes in his last fifteen appearances for club and country. With scorer of the bestest goal ever Allan Smart (knee) and Luke Varney (shoulder) both injured, options up front are limited; Michael Symes is on loan from Everton but Gradi seems reluctant to use him. Hignett partnered Ashton against Rotherham, but struggled for pace.

So. The most important game of the season, then. And it probably doesn't pay to remember that after a round of musical chairs, one chair is removed and the dancers keep on dancing. That's for next season. Musical chairs is no game of deep strategy, after all.

Let's just win.