By Tony Leighton
The importance of relegation-haunted Birmingham City's final match of the Sky Bet Championship season, at Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, has been put sharply into context by manager and former combative midfielder Lee Clark.
"Since I walked through the doors of Newcastle United as a 16-year-old," said the ex-Huddersfield Town boss, "this is the biggest game of my career."
That's quite a statement from a man who played over 500 games variously for Newcastle, Sunderland, Fulham and England Under-21s, and who twice managed Huddersfield into the Play-Offs. But it certainly shows how he feels about a game in which even victory might not be good enough to save Blues from the drop.
If they beat Bolton but the three clubs immediately above them - Doncaster Rovers, Millwall and Blackpool - all win, then they will be relegated.
At the other end of the spectrum of possibilities, however, if Doncaster lose their game at champions Leicester City then a draw for Clark's team would be good enough to keep them up, with Rovers falling down to League 1.
Clark is not thinking too much about that particular conundrum, but he must be relieved that his team are to end the campaign away from home rather than at St Andrew's, which this season has been not so much a fortress as a gift shop.
Blues will end the season with the worst home record in the club's history, yet no one below the Play-Off places has won more away games - and their nine wins on the road are two better than fourth in the table Queens Park Rangers.
So Clark has every right to believe that his team can collect three points at 14th-placed Bolton and then hope that at least one of the other results goes their way.
"I am confident because of how we've performed on our travels," he said. "I've left no stone unturned in preparing the players, and I am confident because on our away form we would be in a Play-Off position. That's the crazy thing."
Crazy it may be, but Clark reckons that the mass departure of players in January - an exodus that came in the wake of the club's financial problems - has been the major reason for his team's fall from a position of safety to one of high danger.
"At one stage," noted the manager, "we had a settled side and we looked a powerful Championship team - at one stage we had a 10-game unbeaten run.
"But losing so many players in January has been a crucial factor. We got to within seven points of the Play-Offs, but at one fell swoop half my team disappeared and so I had to rebuild half way through the season with untried players."
Now the players at Clark's disposal - who home and away have got only seven points from the last 13 games - must get the right result and then cross fingers if Blues are to avoid relegation to the third tier for the first time since 1992.
"I've not contemplated the worst," insisted the manager. "There is a lot of positivity about the team. The players are absolutely focused on what they have to do at Bolton - now we have to go there and get the job done properly."
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