Master meets pupil in relegation clash

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Eventually, as devotees of martial arts films are well aware, the pupil will overcome the master, but Southampton, who have consistently defied logic for 27 years, will be praying it is not on Saturday afternoon at Crystal Palace in their crucial relegation match.

Iain Dowie, the Palace manager, spent two years playing for Harry Redknapp, his Southampton counterpart, at West Ham, and is happy to acknowledge his debt. Had Oldham been prepared to release him from his contract, he would even have become Redknapp's assistant at Portsmouth three years ago. "He's a master of relaxing players," Dowie explained, "he's got sharp wit, he's very passionate about it and he's a good coach. The biggest thing you take from Harry is his man-management ability."

It is hard to imagine, though, that players feel particularly relaxed around Dowie, a man of such furious intensity that he rarely finishes one sentence before he is on to the next. At a management course in December, he admitted that he sometimes wondered whether players might be intimidated by his relentlessness and decided to try to ease back.

That he was even on a management course is telling. Dowie, with his degree in engineering, is one of the new breed who regard football as a business to be managed like any other (Manchester City's Stuart Pearce was also on the course) and who look beyond the sport for inspiration.

Fixed to the wall in Palace's canteen is a sign reading: "HOW MUCH DO I WANT IT?" If the football cliché is to respond "110 per cent", Dowie, one suspects, demands even more.

Training sessions this season have involved his players sparring in a boxing ring to increase their drive and focus. "The little things, the one per cents, all add up," he said. "Attention to detail is even down to how clean the balls are and how many balls there are."

He may worry about the effects of his energy, but his methods cannot be doubted. He took Oldham into the play-offs in his first season and then, remarkably, repeated the feat with Palace a year later, despite them being in the bottom three when he took over in the December. A squad that had looked in danger of relegation to the third flight, with the addition of just £2m worth of players last summer, may now survive in the Premiership.

Certainly if they win on Saturday afternoon they will be favourites to stay up. Victory would carry them out of the relegation zone, three points above Southampton and a point above Norwich, even were the Norfolk side to maintain their recently improved home form and beat Birmingham. West Bromwich, meanwhile, would be relegated were they to lose away to Manchester United.

That would leave Palace needing on the final day only the same result at Charlton - who have won only once since January - as Southampton achieve at home to United and Norwich get at Fulham. Even to be this close to survival is far better than most predicted.

Southampton, however, are an escapologist of a side, who despite the heady achievements of the early 1980s and a recent eighth place under Gordon Strachan, have been battling relegation most seasons since winning promotion in 1978. In Redknapp, of course, they have a manager who is Houdini himself. Even when he was given his first management job at Bournemouth in 1983-84, his brief was to avoid relegation.

Two decades of wheeler-dealing experience meets the university-educated new boy with his motivational aids. Saturday is not just about relegation: it is the old football against the new.

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