Bring it on
By Matt Rowson
Sometimes a game just doesn't need a fanfare. No urges of focus from senior squad members on the Official Site, no appeals for support, no bigging-up. This is one of those games. Bring it on.
T'Blades have had that all season, of course... they were already pulling away, seven points clear of ourselves in third when we met in a fractious game at Vicarage Road in September. Like Reading, they've been up there to be shot at ever since and, like Reading, they've coped pretty adequately for the most part with being the division's trophy victims and haven't ever really looked like letting their automatic promotion place slip.
Thing is, unlike most of the opponents United will have faced since we met in September, we're in the luxurious position of having little to lose on Monday evening. If our recent run hasn't really closed the ground on the top two (much as Betty's recent insistence that we're still chasing them is an entirely healthy and appropriate focus of attention - upwards, rather than over shoulders) then it has at least given us a cushion from the chasing pack. Ten points, suddenly. And yeah, we want to keep winning. We want to keep ourselves at the top end of the play-off group - staying above Ian Dowie's charmers has taken on an importance in my mind's eye that's probably disproportionate. But our cushion will permit us to go into this game - and the trip to Berkshire next month - without any fear. The only result that could really upset our season would be a morale-damaging thrashing.
But you kinda know that's not going to happen. It's more than just our four wins since the turn of the year suggesting that... wins that have come in a variety of different circumstances against a variety of different opponents. There's the increasingly lunatic self-belief pervading Vicarage Road. There's the fact that not since the opening day of the season has a Watford side containing King, Henderson and Young failed to impress (except, arguably and ironically, across Sheffield, when Darius was only half fit). There's six visits to Bramall Lane without defeat. Win, lose or draw we're going to give them a game. Bring it on.
There's nothing quite like breaking your transfer record to cement a strong position, although a few eyebrows will have been raised when Colin indulged in his favourite thing, yetanotherstriker in the shape of Ade Akinbiyi... £1.75m seems a little steep for a 31 year-old, even if the riches of the Premiership are looming on the horizon. United are the seventh team that Akinbiyi has represented at this level, and the eleventh in all. With Bruce Dyer joining on the same day, I make it twenty seven strikers that Neil Warnock has signed permanently for the Blades in his seven years in charge... or one every three months or so, on average.
Broocie might not be quite as odd a choice as at first appears however, given Warnock's fondness for attacking cover. Few strikers of his ability would accept a strictly backup role... indeed, it was Dyer's professionalism in a Stoke reserve game that seemingly tipped the balance, although two goals for Millwall at Bramall Lane in September may have been a factor.
Should he feature he will have played in Watford games for four different clubs in little over nine months, which probably hasn't been done before. It does seem unlikely however... Akinbiyi is lined up for his home debut having scored the only goal of an unspectacular win at Derby on Wednesday night, and there are, as one might expect, numerous alternatives to partner him. Danny Webber seems unlikely to be one of them... reportedly in fine form before a hamstring injury disrupted his progress a fortnight ago. Prognosis was two-to-four weeks, but if he's fit Colin's being uncharacteristically quiet about it.
A more likely option is ten-goal Steve Kabba, Webber's rival as "fast bloke" in United's front pairing, although Neil Shipperley, linked with a move during the transfer window (and only 31, somehow) partnered Akinbiyi with limited success at Derby. Brian Deane, who signed for United before Christmas for a third time following a spell in Australia, is also out.
In midfield Phil Jagielka, a scorer at Vicarage Road, is ever present and still at Bramall Lane despite persistent interest from Wigan. He has partnered Michael Tonge in recent games, increasingly on the fringes of the side this season but "a revelation" according to Warnock in recent weeks to the extent that another new recruit, midfield destroyer Gary Flitcroft, has been kept on the sidelines. So too Nick Montgomery, whose rave reviews from earlier in the campaign seem to have dried up somewhat. Phil Ifill flatters to deceive on the right - seemingly dividing support more than any other member of the squad, he was a centre of a red-card incident that saw Michael Johnson sent off on Wednesday evening. What Blades fans don't appreciate, of course, is that Johnson is still working off the frustration of seeing that header saved by Alec in the 1999 play-offs. Oh yes.
Chris Armstrong has been featuring on the left of midfield, having struggled with injury since arriving from Oldham in the summer of 2003. Alan Quinn and Keith Gillespie provide cover for wide positions on the bench.
It seems to be acknowledged on United messageboards that central defence is the area where cover is weakest; indeed, it was here rather than up front that re-enforcements were anticipated. None were forthcoming however, despite apparent attempts to recruit both QPR's Dan Shittu and Preston's Chris Lucketti. This leaves 37 year-old Craig Short partnering Leigh Bromby, another ever-present, with former skipper Chris Morgan consigned to the bench. In the full back positions, Derek Geary is keeping the delightful Rob Kozluk out, whilst David Unsworth, whose form has reportedly been a bit wobbly of late, is preferred to Alan Wright at left back. Paddy Kenny will be in goal, as he has been forever. Phil Barnes is a largely theoretical and rarely-employed backup.
Bramall Lane, then. One of the more enjoyable trips oop north, traditionally... bit of a shame it's a Monday night. Only a bit though. Floodlights and the cold air do seem to accentuate the drama in such situations. With six of our eight scheduled away games due against sides currently in the top half of the table, this will be some test of how good our away form really is.
Bring it on.