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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 06/04/02
Sheffield United
What might've been...
By Matt Rowson

Three games to go. Fourteenth versus Thirteenth. Not the last home game. Nor the last away game. The very definition of irrelevant. It couldn't possibly be less relevant. But for one detail.

Playing at centre-back for our visitors will be an individual who started 286 games for the Hornets. On many of these occasions he captained the side; indeed he is the only player to captain a winning Watford side at Wembley, and one of only two players to captain the Hornets during two promotion seasons. He has since impressed at his new club to the extent that he finished a narrow second in United's Player of the Season awards.

I doubt that I'm the only Watford fan who'll feel a pang of regret at seeing Robert Page lining up against the Hornets at Vicarage Road. The same pang that's prompted by scanning the Sunday papers and the line ups of Birmingham City, Queens Park Rangers, Oldham Athletic, and so on. There can be little doubt, of course, that whoever the manager, a big broom needed to be taken to the squad last summer. Equally, it has to be a reflection of the disappointment that 2001-02 has been that Page, Mooney and the others are still being missed in April. There was no prolonged sadness at the departures of Craig Ramage, David Connolly, Kevin Miller or even Kevin Phillips in the summer of 1997, nor those of Jason Lee, Wayne Andrews and Stuart Slater a year later.

It would be unreasonable to criticise the new regime on the basis that we've barely suggested a promotion challenge this season; after such upheaval, a promotion surge would have been a fabulous achievement. Nonetheless, there has been plenty beyond this to concern Watford fans...the repeated tinkering with line-ups that has disrupted our occasional "runs of form"; the hasty, expensive and unsuccessful revamping of the squad; increasingly bizarre team selections; a relentless condemnation of the club's fortune after performances that never deserved any; occasional, particularly unwise digs at the lack of support the poor darlings have been getting from the stands. Nor has the style of the team's football been a big selling point; the passing game is particularly unappealing when played badly, or by a team low in confidence.

However, the team's football also forms a big part of the other side of the coin; when it's good, it's very very good. This more than anything has kept the crowd off the management's back, by and large, although Luca might not recognise this. In addition the encouraging, if haphazard, pushing through of the club's youngsters; Fisken, Doyley, Norville, Hand and most recently and thrillingly Anthony McNamee have all made the side this season. There's also the indisputable integrity of those involved...Luca, and even Wilkins, didn't need this job and can only have had admirable motives in taking it. And finally there's the knowledge that things could have been far worse. We could have had Neil Warnock.

It's impossible to preview a Sheffield United game at this time without referring to the recent "Battle of Bramall Lane" that thrust United back into the national headlines but, really, to anyone who knows anything about lower division football (i.e. not sexy Premiership, "Manchester United's Danny Webber" football) there's very little to say. It's a bit like a Scooby Doo cartoon really...the first episode you see might retain a little mystery but from then on you immediately identify the shifty-looking janitor as the guy in the wolf suit that's been scaring everyone in the old folks home. Or whatever.

So okay, West Brom are a nasty, niggly, aggressive football team. But nobody who's ever seen a Neil Warnock team play...hell, nobody who's ever seen Neil Warnock interviewed...will have been surprised or uncertain about the passage of events at Bramall Lane last month. A countless number of our own games against Warnock's sides over the years have been spiteful, nasty encounters - indeed, the relatively tame event earlier in the season could easily have descended into outright warfare in other circumstances. None of us are under any illusions. It's difficult to sympathise with a man who for years has appeared to feed his teams on raw meat and then pleads innocence when some individuals overstep even his own generous mark.

Such has been the conclusion on a number of Sheffield United forums, several opinions suggesting that the "sacrifice" of two key protagonists, Santos and Suffo, was a tame attempt to save Warnock's own skin. As it turns out, the announcement that neither would play for the Blades again was hardly an enormous concession; Georges Santos had been transfer-listed before the event and Patrick Suffo, who will almost certainly feature for Cameroon in the summer, was far from a favourite of the manager in any case. His situation seems to provoke no little sympathy from Blades fans; his headbutt, foolish as it was, appears to have been out of character and the result of serious provocation. For Santos, there is less understanding, although Warnock's decision to introduce into a volatile game a man who had been seriously injured by West Brom's Andy Johnson the previous season has to be questionable. It took the Frenchman, a veteran of our explosive tie with Tranmere in 1999, all of a minute to exact revenge.

Suffo and Santos serve the third of their three game suspension on Saturday in any case; the third man to be sent off for United was goalkeeper Simon Tracey, thirteen years at Bramall Lane. His was only a one-match ban, but he was confined to the bench at the weekend as the excitable Wilko de Vogt retained the start.

Gus Uhlenbeek has joined Walsall on loan for the rest of the season. With Rob Kozluk out with a long-term injury, this gives youngster Ben Doane an extended first-team run at right back. He scored his first goal for the Blades in the recent draw at Crewe. On the left, the experienced Shane Nicholson has taken the place of Rob Ullathorne, one of the two players controversially taken off resulting in the West Brom abandonment.

Partnering Pagey in the centre is Keith Curle, vastly experienced but at pushing thirty-nine still with a short fuse; reports suggest he was lucky not to add to the red card count in the West Brom game. With Shaun Murphy on loan at Palace, another veteran, Lee Sandford, provides cover. The fabulously named Benoit Croissant, once of Troyes, could also come in.

United's midfield is their main source of optimism for the future, boasting three exciting prospects in Phil Jagielka, Nick Montgomery and Michael Tonge. The latter of the three was supposedly attracting some attention as Premiership vultures began to circle before the deadline. Recently-crowned Player-of-the-Year Michael Brown, not always so popular at Bramall Lane, is another recovering from an injury sustained in the West Brom game. Bobby Ford, set to move on a Bosman in the summer, has stood in for him whilst Peter Ndlovu has been pushed up front to cover for further injury problems. French trialist Jean-Phillipe Javary has also featured; he once captained the French Youth side that boasted the likes of Henry and Anelka before his career went the same way of an English counterpart, Dom Ludden. Dries Boussatta, a one-time Ajax right-winger and Dutch international is also on trial, his career having gone a little off the rails. Hmmm. Another right-winger, Paul Devlin, is on loan at Birmingham.

Up front, the injury problems that were besetting United when we met in October have still not gone away; Carl Asaba is out again, Paul Peschisolido has a foot problem and Laurent D'Jaffo is in and out with a back complaint. This has opened the door for Steve Lovell, a pacey loan signing from Pompey, and Scotsman Grant Smith whose father Gordon's 1982 Cup Final appearance lives long in the nightmares of Brighton fans.

Digressing slightly, the arbitrary televising of our home tie with Grimsby earlier in the year came as a blessing to my brother who was at work during the afternoon. A friend watched and taped the game for him and then tactfully withdrew to his room so as not to spoil my brother's enjoyment of the recording that evening. The one incident that he wanted to come back and relive was the post-match "analysis" by Yorkshire's expert panel of Alan Buckley and Neil Warnock. Warnock in particular was foaming at the mouth at Gifton's controversial goal, bemoaning the fate of the "small clubs", and assuring the audience that his side would never have been awarded that goal.

It is a source of enduring astonishment that Colin Wanker has a job in football. It is a grave source of concern that we are below his team in the league.

Be in no doubt, Luca. Next season has to be a marked improvement.