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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 23/04/05, 3.00pm
Sheffield United
Stuck record
By Ian Grant

This may start to get tedious, for both of us. It may already be tedious. Other websites are available.

Y'see, I can only repeat myself. Given some kind of ghastly atrocity to write about - the home defeat to these same opponents that sank a few more nails into Luca Vialli's luxurious coffin, for example - I would be fully justified in venting my considerable frustrations, and that would be some kind of variation. Something that we could share, for how ever long it takes you to read this report. Instead, I have another promising pilot episode for a series that I don't believe will ever reach our screens; I'm obliged to sprinkle these pages with words like "detachment" and "disillusionment", just I'm expected to fake something approaching passion when describing the football itself.

It's Sunday, and it's quite pleasant outside. It's not a day for obligation and expectation. It's not a day that I particularly relish wasting by making elaborate points about the administrative side of a football club, even though that's exactly what's likely to happen over the next couple of hours. Even though that's where we are, much as various people would like to compel everyone to pretend otherwise...which is as understandable as it is unreasonable.

For ninety minutes, I'm perfectly capable of putting what I think into a Tupperware box and placing it neatly to one side, to be reclaimed on the way out. But it's much harder - nigh on impossible, frankly - to do that with how I feel. That's why humankind has developed the metaphorical separation between heart and head, both of which are, ultimately, sophisticated but entirely functional bits of biology.

Let's be positive, says the manager. Let's look forward. And I just react to that with dismay, for it seems as if substance has been traded in for a facade. It feels as if we don't want reality any more. A telling quote from Graham Simpson, conveyed second-hand via Luther Blissett in Friday's Watford Observer, confirms what we all know, deep down: that he's "doing my own thing". That's the f***ing point, Graham; it was once our thing, even if you'd saved it and therefore owned it. (Appropriately, Ash Peters' report on the return fixture at Bramall Lane back in November ran under the headline, "It's our club again".) It may yet turn out to be that Adrian Boothroyd's breezy air of positivity is exactly what's needed, just as it may yet be that we'll find ways of improving the squad rather than hacking it back still further over the summer. May. Yet.

But this is still shoddy, shabby, disgraceful stuff...and it's still being conducted while, presumably, we attempt to find ways of paying our ex-manager less than he's owed under his rolling twelve month contract, a contract that we once proudly and loudly claimed was a gesture of trust and belief. A contract that we've now awarded to the new bloke, poor sod. There's a clear pattern here, and it ain't especially pretty. And it ain't irrelevant either, unless you're prepared to believe that Neal Ardley was always a disruptive influence in the dressing room....

I must be balanced, and I must acknowledge that there have been encouraging developments over the last fortnight. The attempts to encourage fans to travel to Rotherham and to Stoke and the forthright, direct explanation of the Webber-Cullip deal both suggest that some people in those offices still cling onto common sense. Here, the return of "Z-Cars" to its rightful place - perhaps not entirely coincidentally in Oliver Phillips' absence - added a certain buzz to the teams' arrival, to replace the hopeless bluster that was in danger of becoming a tradition in its own right. Small things, but important things.

It'll take an awful lot more, though. Just as one wondered whether Ray Lewington could survive another crisis after last season's period of extreme turmoil, so one looks ahead to Adrian Boothroyd's first run of bad results. Or, perhaps, one prefers to pretend that it won't happen, or that everyone will be terribly understanding if it does. These last two reports have covered bright, positive performances in front of largely bright, positive Vicarage Road crowds. But you can still feel the sand shifting under the castle, and I still feel like I don't want to be around next season. I will be, of course. No point in pretending otherwise. But you may well be heartily sick of hearing remixes of the same tune by then. You may be already...which is where we came in, I believe.

So, let's make this quick; in fact, let's make the next couple of weeks quick, if we can. Let's get it over with, then forget it all for a couple or three months. Because it deserves to be forgotten about, as much as it deserves to be remembered with a long-lingering bitterness. Amid all of the kerfuffle, there was a fair amount to be praised about this afternoon's football, and a great deal of spirit evident throughout. We'll need that spirit, and I'm not merely being churlish when I say that; we'll need, for instance, the kind of willing, able attitude that saw Dominic Blizzard replace Brynjar Gunnarsson as the teams lined up for kickoff, then turn in a typically willing, able performance in the centre of midfield. That's what'll get us somewhere, wherever that might be.

Indeed, the midfield, while less eye-catching than other areas, neatly summarised the whole. There, Gavin Mahon toiled ceaselessly to provide both a platform for our attacking play and adequate protection for our own goal, and, as noted, Dominic Blizzard contributed plenty to the cause alongside him. They were assisted, perhaps, by opponents who seemed to relish physical confrontation rather less than you'd expect - less a matter of Neil Warnock mellowing, I suspect, than the rest of the division upping the stakes - but nevertheless, this was the most complete midfield display for some considerable time.

The defence shouldn't go without praise either. Largely responsible for the crisis in the first place - our propensity for conceding ridiculous goals always seemed to undermine our best intentions, and often at the worst possible moments - the rearguard was so much more assured here, largely untroubled in open play and determined whenever it got into difficulties at set pieces. For whatever reasons, undoubtedly including the old geezer between the sticks, we suddenly look like a side that's not going to give very much away. Charity begins at home, they say. So does being miserly.

From there, we perhaps didn't create the chances that a large amount of open, inviting possession might've merited. For a goalless draw, this was a remarkably lively encounter between two forward-thinking sides, yet it lacked the quality to produce a winner. In one instance, that lack was a matter of only a couple of inches, but better sides wouldn't require that little bit of luck. Still, it's something. And, lest we forget our current situation, it's a point that takes us pretty close to safety.

The late change in personnel, and the even later addition of young Junior Osborne to the substitutes' bench, provided the main talking point of the first half hour. Because, after Chris Eagles had swayed and swerved his way beautifully through the United defence to swing in a cross that Ashley Young excitedly mis-kicked at the far post, there wasn't that much to discuss. In the main, we had the upper hand during these exchanges, fuelled by an earnest, honest desire to impress the home support...and we played some genuinely lovely football at times, sweeping the ball around quickly and finding much more space than has often been the case. It just didn't amount to anything, that's all. Which is all right - I'm not so angered by events that I'll dismiss the kind of progress that I would've enthusiastically applauded a month ago - and yet is rather reliant on keeping a clean sheet at the other end.

Which we did, and very competently in the main. While Kabba's flighty movement always seemed to threaten, he was remarkably well marshalled by the back four, particularly Lloyd Doyley on the right. A twist, turn and shot at Alec Chamberlain's near post was the only product of a great deal of Kabba's hard work, although the referee - Rob Styles, whose reputation, thankfully, was not enhanced during a low-key afternoon - might've paid more serious attention to an apparent tug from Jay Demerit as United started to gain the upper hand towards half-time.

That would've been harsh, though. Both sides probably returned to the dressing rooms with a feeling of unfulfilled promise...but for the home team, that's a considerable improvement on some recent afternoons. Previously, we've ridden our luck with carefree abandon; here, we were firmly focused on our work. And, in Chris Eagles, we had someone who could equal Kabba for imagination and ambition, refusing to let the game set in its mould. His involvement in most of our best moments was not coincidental...and neither, perhaps, is the paucity of "best moments" in too many of the games that he's played in during this loan spell. Still, let's not add to the weight of grumbling that this report is already straining under; he was in lovely form here, and his darting run and low cross after twenty-five minutes nearly provided the opening goal, Kenny stretching to palm the ball wide from a near-post deflection.

The second half brought us rather closer to a conclusive result, teasing with its refusal to disclose what that result might be. Clearly, United came out with renewed intent, and their immediate substitution damn nearly paid off as the newly-arrived Forte sped past Lloyd Doyley into the left of the penalty area to force a fine save from Alec Chamberlain. Freeze-frame it, and there are two things worth mentioning: firstly, that even as he was beaten, Doyley managed to force his opponent into a position where the angle favoured the keeper, even if the save was still excellent; secondly, that Watford players were first to the loose ball, Neil Cox clouting it away from the six yard box. That's better. Much better.

Thereafter, we regained our composure. In that, we were somewhat assisted by our opponents' insistence on trying to hit us on the break, Kenny repeatedly smacking instant punts into our half for forwards to chase and, without exception, for Alec Chamberlain to claim unchallenged. You could see how it might work. But as it didn't work, we merely got the ball back when we'd barely had time to notice that we'd lost it. Thus, pressure began to build...and it was pressure that amounted to a little more than in the first half, half-chances that just lacked the right finishing touch, as when Heidar Helguson's athletic knock-down appeared to release Bruce Dyer, before the ball got away and a defender touched it back to the keeper. The lesson, I guess, is that you can afford to be generous at one end, not both....

We were genuinely unfortunate too, though. Fifty-nine minutes, and Ashley Young, who'd frustrated until this point, conned two defenders with a lazy, languid roll of the ball and a whirling turn, before whipping a fine cross into the heart of the penalty area. There, Chris Eagles rearranged his limbs - legs flying over plunging head - to send the ball smacking against the top of the crossbar. That would've been a goal and three-quarters, something to penetrate even the most jaded, fatigued supporter's heart. Beyond argument, amid so much disagreement.

But we had other moments too, before the game began to accept its fate. Ashley Young curled a shot to Kenny after a tidy lay-off from Bruce Dyer; from a looping Dyer cross, the United keeper flicked the ball away from Heidar Helguson's forehead, as he patiently waited to nod it in on the goalline; Jay Demerit thundered a header into the Rookery from a corner. To the last, it was bright and it was positive and, as you'll have gathered from the repetition, no other adjectives will really suffice for the feeling of surface gloss. We might always play like this, of course, and then the complaints will fade quietly away....

But I don't believe that. That's not reality, for the football club or for this division. There was much to applaud here, and it was applauded heartily and generously. There have been some things to applaud away from the pitch too, at last. But...oh, you know. A visit to Vicarage Road remains, for me, an ultimately disheartening, depressing experience, lifted only by the sense of comradeship with the people who I share that experience with.

It'll be May soon enough. Thank heavens for that.