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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 04/05/03, 1.30pm
Sheffield United
All the same
By Matt Rowson

I spend time researching these previews. Probably too much time, all things considered. My wife would certainly agree. Unless there's tennis on the telly. Certainly too much time when I'm merely extending the research to cover the fact that I haven't got the first clue what to write about.

I've been researching these previews for quite a long time now. Years, in fact. Years spent sifting through out-of-date player profiles, trying to work out if a suspension twelve days ago on a Monday when it was sunny means a suspension next weekend if it's raining, waiting for pages to download, trawling Messageboards for opinion. From all of which there is one single, clear conclusion to distil.

It's all the bloody same.

Oh, dependent on circumstances sure. And coloured by local characteristics too, but only to a point. There are plenty of Wolves fans that don't have a comically inflated view of their club's importance, for example. There are Forest fans that aren't totally preoccupied by two European Cups twenty-plus years ago. There are Burnley fans that can stand up straight and string a sentence together.

For the most part, discussion of football clubs could be generated by a logical computer program, with simple inputs governing recent form and access to a database of relevant names to drop into all the same boxes. On every messageboard, the same arguments, the same discussions, different names. So Mahon / Barrett / Barton / Thomson / Haslam haven't got what it takes at this level. Yes, they have, give them a chance. No, they haven't, bloody rubbish, not fit to wear the shirt. Witch hunt, witch hunt. Why must fans at Vicarage Road / Bramall Lane / Selhurst Park / Hillsborough always have a scapegoat?

Why doesn't Lewington / Warnock / Coppell / Burley / Francis sign this player or that player? Shaun Goater's being released, he's bound to want to join our tin-pot club rather than all the others. Our board lacks ambition, we need this, that, the other. We've just won, we can still make the play-offs, the other lot are nothing. We've just lost, we're going to be in trouble, look, everyone's laughing at us. Come and look at my new website for all the latest news.

It's not football clubs that are different, it's people. In all walks, there are people that you'll get on with and not get on with. The same is true of supporters of your football club, and it's the common badge of faith that misleads, that makes appreciation of this fact a reluctant pursuit. Just as there are people who will cut you up in traffic on the way to work, or slow down to gawp at a traffic accident on the motorway, there are Watford supporters who will heckle a young player getting his first run in the team just as everyone else stops playing at the end of a season. There are Watford supporters who prefer to cheaply snipe and sneer at people making an effort whilst not caring to shift their own sorry arses any further than the pub at the end of the street. There are Watford fans who slow down and gawp at road traffic accidents. There are Watford fans who are wankers.

And Sheffield United fans too, naturally. One of them is their manager, which is an ongoing source of irritation. After the Division One playoffs seemed open to so many comers for much of the season, it's as if the music stopped without warning a month or so ago leaving the Blades, Forest, Wolves and Reading with chairs. The thought of Colin's gurning graceless mug at Cardiff at the end of the month, not to mention the potential for us to lose our increasingly dependable three points from Bramall Lane, are enough to tip preference in a certain direction.

The "mad as a sack of badgers" Paddy Kenny will be in goal for the Blades, wholesale player-resting notwithstanding. That Kenny has recently been named "Player of the Year" at Bramall Lane despite a number of more widely heralded candidates speaks volumes. Veteran Simon Tracey is still around, but Warnock has not named a substitute keeper in recent weeks.

John Curtis, on loan from Blackburn Rovers, is at right-back and will probably be grateful for Heidar Helguson's absence given that he'll still be smarting from their last encounter. Ben Doane was recalled from Mansfield to provide cover here but was injured almost immediately and is out for the season. Rob Kozluk has switched to left-back from his more natural right, and has surprisingly looked a lot more comfortable with the upshot that Rob Ullathorne is expected to struggle to reclaim his place when he recovers from injury.

In the centre, Robert Page needs no introduction and would probably be the main silver lining should United gain promotion. He'll be parnered either by the versatile "Young Player of the Year" Phil Jagielka, sent off at Bramall Lane, also after conflict with Heidar, or Australian Shaun Murphy, who has recently suffered a knock to his knee. Murphy was one of two players lucky to remain on the pitch at Bramall Lane last season as he clashed repeatedly with...hold on, are we spotting a pattern here?

In midfield, twenty-goal leading scorer Mickey Brown is a fixture, and should partner the wily if ever slowing Stuart McCall in the centre. Other options include the widely vaunted but inconsistent Michael Tonge, former Wolves and Preston workhorse Mark Rankine, dogged Scottish U21 international Nick Montgomery, former Owl Owen Morrison and the one-time-teen-sensation-but-now-thirty Peter Ndlovu, no stranger to the Division One play-off scene.

All the talk on United's websites is of the Blades' attractive passing football, which anyone copping a load of the forwards that Colin has to choose from might find difficult to believe.... Windass, Allison, Asaba, Onuora, delicate pixies all. Plus the raw pace of Steve Kabba (United's Gavin Mahon/Steven Thomson/Steve Haslam etc) and the utterly charmless Peschisolido.

The last game of a season that's really come off the rails in the last couple of games, then. It's worth reflecting that, whilst a slightly higher league position and slightly fewer tonkings away from home would have been nice, the spirit, fight and common sense rediscovered in (most of) the club this season make 2002-03 a good thing all round. Hell, we still have a football club, which is in itself cause for celebration.

In common with all football website co-editors, the cease of the relentless fixture list will bring me no small relief. And so now I'm going to stop....