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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 13/12/03, 5.35pm
Sheffield United
Another journey by train
By Matt Rowson

Nearly three months since that trip to Wigan. It doesn't feel as long as that. The memories of that day are all too vivid... the grim inevitability of the railway chaos from the moment we arrived at Euston and saw two thousand people sat sourly on the concourse; the agonising three-hour uninterrupted drive up the motorway, through traffic jams and despite numb legs; the unsympathetic reception we enjoyed on arrival from those who had persevered with the trains and arrived seconds earlier; the game, the weather, the result....

And so despite the affection for trains that I confessed in previewing that game, the prospect of another train journey oop north this weekend instills no little trepidation. I confess this almost despite myself... if you make the reasonable assumption that railway disruption is not being focused on me specifically, then the probability of being hit by train delays on Saturday is no more or less than it was on the morning of the Wigan game. Or, as relevantly, on the greater number of occasions when I've caught a mainline train out of London northwards and not had a problem at all. So even if our railways are unsatisfactorily unreliable, the odds are nonetheless in favour of a successful journey. The success of these trips is effectively a random variable and thus pays no heed to history... the fact that the last trip was disastrous makes a disaster this time no more or less likely. Or so the statistician in me says. Unfortunately, the football fan in me still marks line-ups religiously in the programme and eats chocolate at half time, for luck. Ho hum.

Less random and more deterministic are two sequences of results which will collide with unavoidable casualty on Saturday evening. Sheffield United's recent home form is the first... winning the last four on the hop at Bramall Lane without conceding a goal, this in part steering the Blades into second place despite a long injury list. To maintain this run, however, our hosts will have to overturn our recent fortunes in the south of Sheffield which have seen us win on our last three visits. Neither of these processes are random... United's run of form will have built its own momentum, whatever the side's goalscoring limitations, but the memory of our recent successes will affect both sides if decisions go our way - as they did in this fixture last season.

Perhaps United's biggest problem at the moment is in goal, where regular custodian and player-of-the-year Paddy Kenny is out injured. With Warnock apparently unwilling to use reserve keeper Kristian Rogers, released by Wrexham in the summer, much of the last fortnight has been spent trying to secure cover since Paul Gerrard's loan from Everton expired. Ian Bennett was expected to arrive on loan from Birmingham until Steve Bruce - still a far from popular man in Sheffield - pulled the plug at the last minute. Warnock called in Lee Baxter - who had experience in Swedish football - on a non-contract basis, and former Northern Ireland international Alan Fettis on loan from Hull City prior to last weekend's games. Baxter got the nod for the trip to Burnley and had a bit of a Gary Plumley debut... three goals conceded in forty-five chaotic first-half minutes. Fettis came on at half-time and has yet to concede a goal, although his game-and-a-half on the pitch - including the comfortable midweek win over Walsall - haven't been terribly busy.

At the back, Robert Page's return from injury looks timely since Chris Morgan - a successful-looking summer signing from Barnsley and ostensibly Shaun Murphy's replacement as the bruiser in the backline - picked up an injury at the weekend. This should see Page partnered with the versatile Phil Jagielka, dismissed in this fixture last season. Veteran Mark Whitlow would be another option, but he has looked immobile and very much a stop-gap since his summer arrival from Bolton.

Fullback positions should be taken by Rob Kozluk, who missed Saturday's game with a ban, and Alan Wright, hugely impressive since his arrival on loan from Middlesbrough. Chris Armstrong, recruited in the summer from Oldham, is absent from all newsfeeds presumed injured.

Stuart McCall still holds sway in the centre of the park at the age of thirty-nine... somewhat implausibly, given the degree to which Micah Hyde overran him last September. Michael Tonge continues to impress on the left and will have won further friends in South Yorkshire by extending his contract recently. Nick Montgomery's call-up to the "Scotland futures" squad has coincided with a strong run of form that has seen him score in both of United's fixtures in the last week. These three all look like certs... less clear is the role of last season's big success story Michael Brown; out of contract in the summer, Brown is rumoured to be on his way to Glasgow Rangers and Warnock is touting him to Premiership clubs in the hope of securing some kind of fee in the January break. He was a substitute on Tuesday.

Other options include Peter Ndlovu, who hit a rich vein of scoring form earlier in the campaign from an attacking position hitting eight goals, but hasn't scored in his last thirteen games. Mark Rankine can provide energy in the centre, and winger Dries Boussatta, who has played friendlies for the Dutch national side and competitively for Morocco, was handed a debut on Tuesday. Steve Jagielka, brother of Phil, was recently signed having been released by Shrewsbury, but has yet to feature in the first team.

So with a strong defence and options in the midfield, it's perhaps unsurprising that up front is where United have the most problems. Steve Kabba was the goalscoring hope for this season, but he's missed four months with tendonitis. Although he's now back in training, Warnock is still looking at bringing in a forward and has referred to his target as "someone who won't be everyone's favourite". Coming from a man who has previously signed Ashley Ward, Carl Asaba, Paul Peschisolido, Ashley Ward, Iffy Onuora and Wayne Allison for the Blades, this is saying something. Huddersfield's former Wednesday striker Andy Booth looks the least fanciful of the names being touted about.

Otherwise, candidates for the striking positions include the still-charming Peschisolido, battering ram Allison (whose Indian summer with the Blades appears to be heading into autumn), former Tranmere winger Andy Parkinson and former Forest man Jack Lester. Lester recently referred to a referee as a "spastic" after a heated match at Portman Road, and can thus expect a sanction from the authorities some time in 2007. Ashley Ward may also shake off a knock in time to be considered, but Iffy Onuora is on loan at Grimsby.

The log-jam in the bottom half of the table may mean that the top half is deceptively few points away, but we're also precariously close to the dropzone again. And whilst it's enjoyable to see Palace joining Bryan Robson and the Franchise in the bottom three (no, it really is... massive club, Palace, mind), the view will be all the more impressive from a bit further up.

Heidar Helguson's return to the fold is timely and relevant - he's played a part in each of our recent victories here, and a huge part in the last two. Time to get our recovery back on track...