By Matt Rowson
Neil shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
"No... no", he stammered.
But the piercing eyes didn't go away. Why were they doing this? Why torment him? He'd done what he could for them, helped them as much as he could. How could they ask this of him, how could they be so cruel?
He felt the cold flush of sweat breaking on his forehead, and tried to avoid their gaze. When the voice came again it was viciously calm, probing.
"Why not? You know you want to. What else are you going to do?"
His slender façade of composure crumbled.
"STOP IT! STOP IT! Why are you doing this? I can't do that, you know I can't. Please don't make me. PLEEEAASSSE."
"For Christ's sake Dad, we only want to go to the cinema".
"Stay home, stay home, stay home", he gibbered. "Don't go out, never leave, stay home, stay home...".
Still muttering, he blundered away from them and locked himself in the bathroom.
The value of a home life and looking after your own is not unique to Neil Warnock. Indeed, his native Yorkshire has long been characterised by such, which extends to a certain provincialism. A particularly dramatic illustration of this was on the regional Calendar News programme some years ago, possibly during GT's time in England. The sports bulletin was something along the lines of:
"And Graham Taylor named his England squad today for next week's World Cup Qualifier... it includes David Batty and Tony Dorigo of Leeds, and Carlton Palmer and Chris Woods of Sheffield Wednesday, as well as Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman, who was born in Rotherham...".
What makes Warnock particularly unusual, however, is his obvious aversion to travelling. So strong is this aversion, in fact, that he has presided over a grand total of eight away victories in almost four years of unbroken management, dating from his appointment at Oldham through his time at Bury and now at Bramall Lane. Eight. In four years. Impressive.
Annoyingly, we've already had our fun with Warnock and co at the Vic. Saturday sees us travel to Bramall Lane, something of a fortress for United this season - in stark contrast to their away form - and a ground where we've yet to win a competitive fixture.
The basis for this home form is, unsurprisingly, a solid back four that has conceded just nine goals in thirteen home games. Whilst United's away form and the financial restrictions under which the club continues to operate - let alone the questionable imagination of their manager - will probably prohibit a serious promotion challenge, this lot sit firmly in the "awkward buggers" box.
In goal for United is the long-serving Simon Tracey, in fine form this season having replaced Alan Kelly on his departure for Blackburn. A neck injury to Australian Frank Talia and the continued absence of Matt Duke means that the cover to Tracey is very sparse - David Kelly is the most likely deputy in the event of a catastrophe during a game.
At the back, Rob Kozluk has returned from his loan spell at Huddersfield to reclaim his right-back slot. Gus Uhlenbeek has played at left-back, although United's recent capture of the injury-prone former Leicester stopper Rob Ullathorne will provide more competition here. This week also saw the departure of Wayne Quinn, who has been inconsistent in a Blades shirt since his impressive debut season, on loan to Newcastle with a view to a permanent move. Quinn was the first opposing player to score against the Hornets this season.
At centre half, Australian international Shaun Murphy has established himself after a shaky start to his United career. The solid Lee Sandford, currently in "inspirational" form, and the no less experienced Keith Curle are also options. Belgian Davy Gysbrechts has made little impression since his arrival from Jan Lohman's old club Lokeren two years ago.
In midfield, the craggy Georges Santos, who is also capable of putting the boot in at centre-half or up front. Energy is provided by Bobby Ford - dismissed at the Dell last weekend - and on-form Michael Brown, himself just coming back from suspension. The combative Curtis Woodhouse has also featured at left-back this season, whilst youngster Nick Montgomery, whose short career has already had to overcome a broken leg and meningitis, is beginning to feature. He was played out of position on the right, rather than in the centre, at Southampton. Another youngster, Phil Jagielka, is on the fringes of the team.
The right-sided midfield role is sometimes taken by the tricky Paul Devlin, probably the most talented attacking player in the squad, but he has recently partnered David Kelly up front. Kelly, like Santos, is a veteran of the Easter Saturday battle with Tranmere at Vicarage Road two years ago. Other attacking options include Cameroon international Patrick Suffo, who sat out the opening months of the season due to a suspension incurred in France, and the cumbersome, unpopular Laurent D'Jaffo. Welsh U21-international James Thomas arrived from Blackburn as part of the deal that took Marcus Bent to Ewood Park.
We were promoted two years ago despite a 3-0 reverse at Bramall Lane; nonetheless, games like this are a litmus test of how stable our recovery has been. More important than last weekend's distraction, make no mistake.
United's official website features a cliché-ridden plug for the autobiography of Derek Dooley (entitled "DOOLEY!", with a suitable lack of fuss). The phrases "humble beginnings", "bouncing back", "honest story" and "true Sheffield hero" are admirably squeezed into a single paragraph.
So to respond in kind, let's squeeze some clichés of our own into this conclusion. There's no room for passengers. This could be a turning point to our season. Let's want it more than them. It's time to sort the men from the boys. Let's show 'em what we're made of....
"We never win at Bramall Lane"? Well, that's one cliché that really is past its sell-by date....