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Wednesday, May 7, 2003
Playoff lowdown

Richard Jolly

Sheffield United

League position: Third

Who? Cup kings who specialise in beating Leeds but found time between two semifinals to mount the biggest challenge to Portsmouth and Leicester.

Manager: Neil Warnock, controversial and idiosyncratic Blades fan with a 100 percent record from four previous playoffs. A former chiropodist with a gift for exaggeration, his hobbies include referee-baiting, poetry and signing Adrian Littlejohn.

Team: They belie Warnock's long-ball image and have actually played some very good football this season. That a collection of veterans, youngsters and players unwanted elsewhere are on the verge of the Premiership is testament both to their team spirit and Warnock's acumen in the transfer market.

System: Warnock usually opts for 4-5-1 against Premiership opposition and 4-4-2 in the First Division, meaning a combination of pace and aerial strength in attack (probably Steve Kabba and Dean Windass, though Warnock chooses from five strikers). In the centre of midfield, 38-year-old Stuart McCall has withstood the rigours of a long campaign while wingers Peter Ndlovu and Michael Tonge, who can both operate on either flank, are potential matchwinners.

Star player: Michael Brown. The former Manchester City midfielder has an all-action approach and complements committed tackling with excellent passing. He also scores goals more goals than most forwards.

Top scorer: Brown, with 20 in all competitions. Though he takes penalties, it is his ferocious long-range shooting which opponents fear and, as Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich can testify, any volley from within 30 yards can spell danger. Kabba (17, spread across three clubs) is the most prolific forward.

Hard man: Brown again. He has 11 yellow cards in Division 1 and his studs-up introduction to Chris Kirkland angered Gerard Houllier. More over-enthusiastic than dirty, however.

Key man: Er, Brown? But if he can be expected to excel, Peter Ndlovu is more inconsistent but, on his day, equally capable of changing a game.

Crowd favourite: Brown, obviously, though Dean Windass often plays to the gallery.

Likely lineup: P Kenny; P Jagielka, R Page, S Murphy, J Curtis; P Ndlovu, S McCall, M Brown, M Tonge; D Windass, S Kabba.


Nottingham Forest

League position: Sixth

Who? Perhaps the First Division's best passing side, making their most credible challenge to return to the Premiership after a five-year absence and near bankruptcy.

Manager: Paul Hart. Quietly-spoken European Cup winner revered for his role with two of English football's most successful youth systems in the last decade (Leeds and Forest). Proving equally successful in management.

Team: Several products of Forest's outstanding youth system, though 37-year-old captain Des Walker emerged almost two decades before the likes of Gareth Williams and Michael Dawson. Technically excellent side with fine distribution and quick forwards who, unlike last season, score plenty of goals. Only champions Portsmouth scored more.

System: 4-3-1-2. Forest's formation and style of play is arguably suited to a higher league. If fit, on-loan Darren Huckerby will occupy the free role behind the front two; though his head-down solo runs tended to end up near the corner flag in the Premiership, he averages a goal every other game in the lower league. Andy Reid, on the left of the midfield trio, also breaks quickly to join the strikers.

Star player: Michael Dawson's composed displays in the centre of defence earned him a place in the PFA First Division side and in the England squad for a training camp. Reportedly being watched by half of the Premiership.

Top scorer: David Johnson has rediscovered his goalscoring touch in spectacular fashion with 27 this season. Strike Marlon Harewood has allied finishing to his pace and power to break the 20-goal barrier as well.

Hard man: That was David Prutton's job before his move to Southampton. Right back Mathieu Louis-Jean, with two red cards this season, has stepped into the breach.

Key man: Riccardo Scimeca. Finally justifying his 3 million fee, the former Aston Villa defender occupies the midfield anchor role and can control a game with his distribution.

Crowd favourite: You'll never beat Des Walker.

Likely line-up: D Ward; M Louis-Jean, M Dawson, D Walker, J Brennan; J Thompson, R Scimeca, A Reid; D Huckerby; D Johnson, M Harewood.


Reading

League position: Fourth

Who? A promoted team who, like Preston and Millwall before them, have found Division One surprisingly easy. Despite their league position, however, are likely to be the rank outsiders against sides with bigger-name players.

Manager: Alan Pardew. Ambitious up-and-coming manager increasingly linked with Premiership jobs. Excellent tactically, he has won several games with substitutions and changes of formations. Strangely, tried to sign Paolo di Canio.

Team: Blend of youth and experience, featuring three former team-mates of Pardew who exceed the sum of their parts. Defensively excellent with perhaps the best keeper in the division - Marcus Hahnemann - while loan signings Glen Little and Luke Chadwick have added creativity on the wings. Finished fourth despite 17 league defeats.

System: 4-2-3-1. Pardew changed from 4-4-2 early in the season, leaving a lone striker, Nicky Forster, supported by three from the six talented attacking midfielders or wingers in his squad. Energetic former Arsenal youth players Steven Sidwell and James Harper will probably occupy the deeper roles in the midfield.

Star player: Andy Hughes has chipped in with nine goals from an attacking midfield role, an important contribution in a low-scoring side. He will bear much of the responsibility for supporting Forster.

Top scorer: Nicky Forster has 16 goals to his name, including two hat-tricks, and is a quick forward who is at his best when running at defenders. Perhaps the best finisher at the club is regular substitute Jamie Cureton (nine).

Hard man: Ricky Newman's devotion to his defensive midfield duties have brought him 11 yellow cards this season.

Key man: Luke Chadwick's career at Manchester United has stalled over the last couple of years but he has made an impact on loan at the Madejski. Like Little, who will probably play on the left, he has the ability to win the tie for Reading.

Crowd favourite: Captain Adrian Williams was a member of Reading's last First Division playoff campaign back in 1995.

Likely line-up: M Hahnemann; G Murty, S Brown, A Williams, N Shorey; S Sidwell, J Harper; L Chadwick, A Hughes, G Little; N Forster.


Wolves

League position: Fifth

Who? Perennial big spenders and under-achievers still trying to recover from last year's remarkable failure to win promotion. Plenty of Premiership experience, but if Wolves don't go up, next season they will have the dubious honour of being the longest-serving team in Division 1.

Manager: Dave Jones. Former Stockport and Southampton boss trying to rebuild his career after a ludicrous court case and the eventual failure of their promotion push last year. Has spent 14 million, and chairman Sir Jack Hayward expects some return on his investment.

Team: Hugely experienced outfit hoping the additions of Paul Ince and Denis Irwin last summer will help shed their reputation as chokers. When they win, it is normally comfortable but often struggle at home if they don't score early on. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of firepower; Dean Sturridge, prolific last year, is normally a substitute.

System: 4-4-2, and quite regimented about it, though left winger Mark Kennedy can push forward to make a front three alongside strike duo Nathan Blake and Kenny Miller, the stereotyped big man and small man respectively. With Irwin and England Under 21 centre back Jolean Lescott especially impressive, only Leicester conceded fewer goals.

Star player: Mark Kennedy has yet to justify his considerable talent in the Premiership, but has proved capable of mesmerising First Division defences.

Top scorer: Kenny Miller has been given a run in the team this year and has responded with 23 goals. An excellent finisher who is back in the Scotland side, he has also played well with George Ndah when Blake has been absent.

Hard man: Paul Ince, surprisingly enough. Age has not altered his committed approach.

Key man: Colin Cameron is among the best attacking midfielders in Division 1 and arguably should score more often. The playoffs could provide a suitable stage for the former Hearts captain, but he and Ince are likely to be up against three central midfielders when they face Reading.

Crowd favourite: Ince and Alex Rae's determination endears them to the Molineux faithful.

Likely line-up: M Murray; D Irwin, J Lescott, P Butler, L Naylor; S Newton, C Cameron, P Ince, M Kennedy; K Miller, N Blake.




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