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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 13/03/04, 3.00pm
Sheffield United
By Matt Rowson

I like the play-offs. Tremendously exciting, even as a neutral... arguably the most watchable football on the domestic calendar. They also serve the dual purpose of both fuelling supporters' instinctive optimism (a valuable trick for any Nationwide club) by prolonging the relevance of the season for more clubs for longer, and providing a bit of drama to crown the whole thing off.

That's rather easier for me to say than it might be from a United perspective, obviously. It's fifteen years, after all, since we last lost in the play-offs, since when the Blades have lost out in one semi-final and two finals, most recently against Wolves last May.

After the disappointing capitulation in Cardiff, and given United's form over much of last season and their Cup runs in particular, they were amongst the favourites for automatic promotion this time around. It's not quite worked out that way... and United's continued presence in the play-off places owes as much to the lack of consistent competition from elsewhere as it does to the Blades' own form. In terms of points, they're closer to the bottom half of the division than they are to automatic promotion and since the turn of the year their form has been particularly shaky, with two wins and five defeats in their last eight league games. There is an unavoidable sense that last season's successful side missed its chance.

The "what's gone wrong" debate leaves fingers pointing in several directions. Last season's most dependable sources of goals have both been unavailable, either through playing and talking themselves into an eventual move to Spurs (Michael Brown) or through injury (Steve Kabba, who has managed thirty minutes in the first team so far this season). Injuries have been responsible for the squad being weakened in other areas too, although it has to be said that when you sign someone like Ashley Ward you really ought to factor a few weeks under the sun lamp per season into the equation.

Other players have simply lost form. Michael Tonge, one of the stars of the last campaign, has looked lightweight and inconsistent, the defence, and Robert Page in particular, looks suddenly very fallible, and the years appear to finally have caught up with Stuart McCall.

Another factor may have been the departure of Warnock's erstwhile number two, Kevin Blackwell, to a similar if more precarious looking position at Elland Road. Credited with much of the aesthetically pleasing stuff that United turned out last year, Blackwell's departure has coincided with United returning to a much more direct style of play, and Warnock has adopted an altogether more random-looking transfer policy.

Paddy Kenny will be in goal for United, a decent stopper and now with call-ups to the full Irish squad although his kicking is a bit dodgy. Warnock doesn't tend to name a substitute keeper, preferring to gamble on five outfield options and Phil Jagielka's emergency backup, however recent recruit Sasa Ilic is probably the first choice deputy with Alan Fettis, who played against us at Bramall Lane, now on his way to Grimsby.

United's defence has been a bit rocky recently, with Robert Page displaying an all too familiar tendency to back off his opponent, something which Tommy Smith presumably anticipated during the Cup tie at the weekend. Alongside Page will be the more aggressive and recently more dependable Chris Morgan. Former Bolton veteran Mike Whitlow has also played in the centre, but misses out on Saturday through suspension. This leaves Phil Jagielka as the main backup, although he's been playing at right back recently. A good prospect, Jagielka has looked low on confidence in the last few weeks.

An alternative at right back might be Simon Francis of Bradford, in whom Warnock has a confirmed interest and who would have impressed any potential suitors with his showing for Bradford on Tuesday evening. Sunderland have also reared their heads, however, and having been recently pipped by the Blades to Andy Gray's signing, might be expected to make a point of claiming their man this time.

On the left, the right footed Rob Kozluk has also had a slightly uncomfortable time of it. Always better defending than attacking in any case, Kozluk's position is put under further threat by the return to fitness of veteran Alan Wright. Chris Armstrong, a summer signing from Oldham, hasn't featured since November due to injury.

What formation Warnock chooses to field is anyone's guess... he moved a thoroughly insipid looking 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 on Sunday that at least looked aggressive and competitive if not packing any great punch. One particular poser will be who to field in the midfield holding role... prolific loanee Carl Robinson has been impressing here, but returned to Portsmouth this week. Stuart McCall is struggling increasingly to exert his traditional influence, which leaves Mark Rankine whose inclusion would not be widely popular.

Nick Montgomery's presence is pretty much a given... expect lots of energy, but perhaps not a lot else. Paul Shaw has failed to convince many of his potential to be Brown's long term replacement since his arrival from Gillingham. He's still guaranteed to score on Saturday, of course, having developed a knack of finding the net against us for all three of his previous clubs. Tonge should also play, although the dependable ineffectiveness of his floated corners and dead balls is beginning to frustrate.

Midfield options in wide positions include the talented but frustrating Peter Ndlovu, who has looked in need of a break since returning from the African Cup of Nations, former Tranmere man Andy Parkinson, thoroughly ineffectual before a recent loan to Notts County appeared to reinvigorate him, and Moroccan winger Dries Boussatta, who appears to have fallen from grace recently. Out of contention with injury is exciting prospect Jonathan Forte.

Up front, injuries to Ward and Kabba reduce options. Andy Gray isn't fast enough to be a quick striker, or strong enough to be a target man; either way Warnock seems to have signed him as a forward rather than to play in his more traditional wing role, and United fans won't be too fussed if he continues the form that has yielded two goals in two starts to date. There's nothing complicated about Wayne Allison, of course, and Ward's injury is likely to see him at least earn a place on the bench, but the message board consensus would seem to favour greater employment of the pace of either Paul Peschisolido or gravitationally challenged Jack Lester, who is working his way back into the side following injury. United also have been linked with further strikers this week, specifically Blackpool's prolific Scott Taylor and the languid former Wednesday striker Gerard Sibon, whose signing might raise a few eyebrows.

United's poor form is all relative, of course... if we repeat Tuesday night's horror show then the Blades could field a team of their rather officious stewards, stick a packet of pikelets in goal and still give us a hiding. We have a good record against Warnock's side, however - five wins and one defeat in the last seven encounters - and if we're going to get the three wins that are probably a minimum requirement between now and the end of the season, this one has to go down as a "maybe".