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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 17/09/05, 3.00pm
Sheffield United
Snowman, you got your ears on?
By Matt Rowson

It should go without saying that this isn't how things were expected to develop. I certainly didn't anticipate seeing us two places off this end of the table at any point, and common consensus had us down for a relegation struggle.

This could still develop, of course, much as there hasn't been an awful lot in the performances to suggest it. It is still, as managers at either end of the table are energetically emphasising, "early days". At this point last season, we were sixth, with a game in hand, three points off the lead whilst Stoke were third and later-to-be play-off finallists Preston were seventeenth.

Which isn't a comparison that's really worth pursuing beyond the obvious horse-holding that it encourages... whilst our first eight games of last season yielded a similar haul of points and goals as this, only perhaps away at Cardiff City did both the result and the performance that accompanied it compare to much of what we've already enjoyed in this campaign. And yet the ninth game, at home to Reading, was a turning point. We weren't "outclassed", or "found out"... in fact, we more than matched our opponents, and were hugely unfortunate to lose the match. But our form gradually slipped away, from good performances delivering one point rather than three to good performances being fewer and further between.

And having said that the comparison is pointless, I really am going to leave it there - we have a different team altogether now, only two survivors from that starting eleven are likely to start on Saturday (in yellow, at any rate - James Chambers and Ashley Young) with only one other (Gavin Mahon) still at the club. And there's the new boss, of course.

The thing is, the season so far, since roughly half time at Home Park, has resembled a Smokey and the Bandit car chase. Exuberantly, childishly enjoyable, irresistible, inevitable. Chortle as Derby County crash into a ditch. Snigger as Stoke City are sent skidding into a tree. But the chances are that this won't continue indefinitely; we'll hit the skids at some point, and much will be learned - by the team, as Betty is keen to emphasise, but also by us about them and the new boss.

The same is true of Sheffield United, of course. Whilst not overachieving to the same extent as us, the Blades will nonetheless not have banked on being four points ahead at this stage with only a defeat at QPR a month ago blotting an otherwise perfect scorecard. Not everyone's getting carried away - there have been suggestions that performances haven't quite matched the impressive results from some quarters. Nonetheless, in what is seen as Colin's last hurrah, his last chance to get his side up after what seems like an eternity of finishing unconvincingly between fifth and ninth, there's an uncommon resolve about the United side.

One other break from the norm has been an uncommonly low striker count (relatively speaking) following the summer putting to pasture of Ashley Ward and several other departures. Colin has this week rewarded himself for United's good start by indulging in his favouritest thing - a big lumpy striker, Vincent Pericard, who arrives on loan from Pompey for three months. Impressive in Pompey's title win three seasons ago (since when he's struggled with injury), he looks like competing with, or providing a breather for, Neil Shipperley, a Hornets loanee under Glenn Roeder many lifetimes ago.

Alongside whom will probably be Steve Kabba, who has set off this season at a blistering pace having also suffered with injury for the last couple of years. Very, very quick, Kabba's current form - like Marlon, six goals so far - has perhaps encouraged a certain single-mindedness with the ball at his feet, occasionally at the expense of more sensible options. Danny Webber has been out with a calf strain, and at best will get a place on the bench if fit. Paul Shaw, so often Watford's nemesis at his previous clubs, has an Achilles injury and is at any rate some distance from the first team.

In midfield, the much maligned Nick Montgomery appears to have battled his way back into affections having arguably been United's most impressive performer in the opening month of the season. He's likely to partner the versatile Phil Jagielka, for whom the Blades turned down a 4million bid from Wigan over the summer, in the middle of the park. Former Wednesday man Alan Quinn should start on the left, with either Northern Ireland international Keith Gillespie, or 800,000 summer signing Paul Ifill on the right. Michael Tonge, a recent recipient of stick from the Bramall Lane faithful by all accounts, and flaky former Leicester man Lillian Nalis are likely to be on the bench.

At the back, much credit is given to the recruitment of two wise and relatively old heads from the Premiership. David Unsworth in particular has impressed to date ("a beast of a player"), and will be making his third appearance against the 'orns in under twelve months, each in a different shirt having already lost in the livery of Portsmouth and Ipswich (whilst on loan) last season. Somehow, he is only thirty-one.

The other veteran recruit is Craig Short... now thirty-seven, an age that he looked when first playing under Colin at Scarborough in the late eighties. A calf strain caused him to sit out Tuesday's win at Brighton, but he could be back in contention for the weekend. If fit he's likely to partner Chris Morgan, seen by some as the weak link in the first choice back four, with Leigh Bromby moving back to right back to replace Rob Kozluk. Derek Geary and Chris Armstrong, another to have suffered through injury since his arrival, might also feature but former Bradford prodigy Simon Francis appears to be some distance from selection. Paddy Kenny will be in goal, as ever, having not missed a game since before Betty was born. Phil Barnes is a very theoretical deputy.

Something's gotta give on Saturday, since even a draw, whilst not a disgrace for either side, would for both nonetheless represent some degree of interruption. Of course, nobody but nobody makes Sherriff Buford T. Warnock look like a possum's pecker. However, our runaway start to the season is going to take some stopping.

That's a big ten-four.

Over and out.

(Come on....!)