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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 28/09/02, 3pm
Sheffield United
...while Rome burns
By Ian Grant

God, this'll be a weird one....

For a start, it's difficult to imagine a Sheffield United preview without further entertaining variations on Warnock-baiting from Matt - something of a BSaD tradition, rather like our attempts to weave abuse of Kev'n'Ray's Travelling Circus into every article on the site back in Second Division days. Since he's at a conference, however, I'll just have to try my best to do him proud on that count.

More to the point, taking a tour of the Blades' squad in the current circumstances is a bit like flicking through travel brochures while Rome burns all around. With Watford apparently just a few days, and £3.2m, away from entering administration, it is hard to feign interest in Steve Yates' groin injury. After all - and the continued bickering about past mistakes seems to indicate that the penny still hasn't dropped - it appears that this is it.

Of course, a large number of clubs have gone into administration and emerged with their affairs straightened out...but, with football in such an almighty mess, you tend to feel that there'll be one that doesn't make it through in the not-too-distant future. Bearing in mind that, whatever else they've done, the directors seem to be determined to avoid administration (quite literally) at all costs, the omens aren't particularly positive on that score. And Gordon Taylor's odious, pig-headed comments yesterday didn't suggest that we can expect much support from the PFA.

In short, it could be us.

All of which doesn't exactly lend itself to unbroken concentration on Saturday's fixture. With United in excellent form having won six out of the last eight and currently settled in the top six, it wouldn't have been at all easy anyway. After this week's events, Ray Lewington's organisational and motivational abilities will surely be tested to the very limits. Really, any kind of points return from this one would be a considerable achievement, and something of a morale boost too. Football is supposed to enter the equation at some point, after all.

Something of a goalkeeping crisis at Bramall Lane means that Paddy Kenny, on loan from Bury, is likely to be between the wooden bits on Saturday. Simon Tracey, who's been a Blade since 1988 and has unwittingly provided some of the more entertaining moments of these games recently, has been sidelined since the summer with a knee injury. I have been unable to determine whether the lack of a goalkeeping substitute in last week's game at Gillingham was mere Warnock-ish madness or an indication that Dutch back-up Wilko De Vogt is crocked too.

In defence, Rob Kozluk, who's still hanging around despite being loaned to Huddersfield and nearly sold to Wigan, is likely to be at right back. Local chap Ben Doane can provide cover on either flank, but Rob Ullathorne is the most obvious choice for the left side.

The most familiar part of the United line-up is, of course, our very own Robert Page, who's perhaps remembered rather too often for his post-Wembley errors and too little for his earlier heroics. After suffering from an ankle injury since the first week of the season, he was on the bench against Gillingham and was expected to continue his recovery in a mid-week reserve game. Whether that'll be enough for him to make a comeback on Saturday remains to be seen.

Otherwise, Steve Yates, a summer signing from Tranmere, has been out with a groin injury, as previously mentioned. That has led to Phil Jagielka, more commonly found in midfield where he's played alongside Danny Webber at England Under-20 level, covering at the back and partnering Australian Shaun Murphy, strong in the air but prone to dips in form. Sadly, the brilliantly-named Frenchman Benoit Croissant is on loan at Dutch side / budget record label Telstar.

The midfield was bolstered in the summer by the signing of Stuart McCall from Bradford. At thirty-eight, you could suggest that he's seen better days...but, like Andy Hessenthaler, his sheer, relentless energy levels tend to indicate that only injury will ever stop him. Even when he retires, he'll still run everywhere...and, whatever else, youngsters like the impressive Michael Tonge won't be taking it easy while he's around.

Of course, no-one's likely to influence Peter Ndlovu now. Transfer-listed before the start of the season, he continues to offer fifty-seven varieties of not-delivering-a-final-ball, whether in midfield or attack. Yawn. Versatile Nick Montgomery provides plenty of activity, whether used in a central role, out wide or as a man-marker...and, unless I'm mistaken, it's out wide at the moment. He has competition from Jon-Paul McGovern, whose wing-play has been borrowed from Celtic for six months. On the left flank, Michael Brown has also been switched about plenty since signing from Manchester City, but that hasn't stopped him picking up the "Player of the Year" award. All-rounder and former French Youth captain Jean-Phillipe Javary completes the possibilities.

Up front, injuries have hit hard. Carl Asaba, top scorer with a meagre seven last season, was ruled out of the Gillingham game with a back problem. The goal tally probably has much to do with the fact that he was been used as a target man, a role that doesn't particularly suit Warnock brought in Robbo's mate Iffy Onuora to do that job. Something of a marriage made in heaven, really...except that Onuora has ruptured his Achilles and won't return until Christmas at the very earliest. That leaves an even more Warnock-ish striker, much-travelled bruiser Wayne Allison, to lead the line.

In support, there's Paul Peschisolido...who, even though it's nearly ten years since he got Paul Furlong dismissed at St Andrews, remains a cheating little scumbag. Having picked up an Achilles injury in the last match, he's unlikely to be available. So that leaves a choice between promoting Laurens Ten Heuvel, a six figure signing from the afore-mentioned Telstar, from the bench and moving Ndlovu up from midfield. We'll see.

All things considered, this isn't likely to be a particularly cheery few weeks for Watford fans. It's tempting to deliver another lecture on pulling together, getting behind the team, looking to the future...but this isn't the time or the place, really. Besides, it's been a long day.

Just one thing, then....

Enjoy the game.