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00/01: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 13/1/01
Sheffield United
By Ian Grant

If there's one thing that you can't fake, it's football. When you look back over the attempts to capture it on screen, you can't help but cringe.

The point is, obviously, that we're far too close to the genuine article - we know what it's like to celebrate when our team scores a last minute winner, we know what a really competitive game looks like, we know when players aren't putting their hearts into it. When you handle banknotes all day, you can spot a forgery instantly. More importantly, there's a certain magic about a real football match, and it's not something that twenty-two actors bashing a ball about in front of a directed crowd could ever generate.

I've found just one exception. It's in Michael Winterbottom's tender, beautiful "Wonderland", a film that I absolutely adore. The football scene is largely incidental and lasts barely ten minutes...yet, for me, it grabs and holds onto that elusive magic.

Somehow, it just understands. From the morning of the game to the final scores on the radio, it captures the ritual, the whole anticipation and anticlimax thing. It largely ignores the game, concentrating on the faces in the crowd and their complete, wide-eyed absorption. It feels right, it feels like football. Although the irony is that it captures the matchday magic of Selhurst bloody Park, which makes it a work of complete fiction....

Bramall Lane has also received the cinematic treatment, of course. "When Saturday Comes" bounds eagerly through The A-Z Of Movie Clichés, painstakingly avoiding anything that might be considered subtle, challenging or surprising. It also features a cameo appearance from Tony Currie - the former Hornet and Blade plays himself with all the power and passion of a speak-your-weight machine, conclusively proving that being an artist on the pitch doesn't necessarily transfer to being an artist anywhere else. The whole thing's utterly terrible, but in a vaguely likeable way.

On this evidence, it'll be some time before Hollywood comes knocking on the door of Bramall Lane again. While Sheffield might be a lovely city, there's little entertainment to be found here. The bitter wind whistles around a full, but largely silent, ground. The traditional scantily-clad teenage cheerleaders prance around with various stages of hypothermia. A clearly bored child wanders aimlessly around the centre circle waving two cardboard blades to no apparent purpose. The PA announcer bellows stuff about "fortress Bramall Lane" before welcoming "the red and white wizards", which is not the first description of a Neil Warnock side that springs to mind, onto the pitch. You wonder why teams have such a problem winning here.

Watford teams, in particular. Before this, we'd tried and failed nine times, including a couple of pretty severe beatings in recent years. It's not a happy hunting ground. Whatever mixed messages you get from this report - and we have much to work upon before we face Fulham - the result represents a considerable achievement.

Regardless of what happens during the rest of the season, nobody'll remember this one. You don't get points for memories, anyway - all that matters is that we sneaked a victory in a match that never really got going until the final fifteen minutes. Convention states that media reports will be obliged to note that neither side looked of sufficient quality to survive in the Premiership...well, frankly, who cares?

Sure, we played some moderately attractive football in the first half. What Paolo Vernazza lacks in authority compared to Carlton Palmer, he makes up for with sheer natural talent and his involvement in pretty much everything positive during the first forty-five minutes was unavoidable. Why no man of the match award for Mr Snazzy-Name, then? Well, he was also caught in possession in dangerous areas on far too many occasions, something that, along with stupid bookings, became a bit of a feature of the whole performance. We weren't punished for our mistakes here. We will be next Saturday.

Anyway, that attractive football never seemed quite penetrating enough to worry United. In fact, we created our best chance of the half after just four minutes. A fine interchange between Paolo Vernazza and Gifton Noel-Williams fed the ball out to Allan Nielsen on the right wing. When he pulled the ball back, it fell to Tommy Smith with a clear sight of goal...unfortunately, in taking a controlling touch that turned out to be anything but, he managed to lose possession to a defender.

After Brown had dragged a weak shot wide, United conjured up their clearest opening. It came from a corner, Murphy rising among the crowd to meet the cross on the edge of the box. His header dropped for Thomas, unmarked and six yards from goal, but he turned and hit his volley wide.

For now, the game had yet to settle into the rather dreary hustle and bustle that would make it a less than thrilling spectacle. From another low Nielsen centre, Tommy Mooney's dummy nearly let in Smith again, before Tracey slid out to claim from the striker's feet. Then Vernazza was again instrumental in a move that developed down the left, Robinson sending Noel-Williams away for a run that ended with an ambitious shot that comfortably cleared the bar. This lively opening period concluded after sixteen minutes with Woodhouse's well-struck shot from the edge of the box, which whistled over while Alec Chamberlain watched and trusted his judgement.

Gradually, however, the game slumped into mediocrity. Both sides attempted to play passing football as much as possible...but passing football isn't always pleasing to watch, reliant as it is on consistent accuracy and movement. Like building a house of cards, moves would rise promisingly before collapsing without reaching completion. It wasn't an unattractive game. It just wasn't a good one. Like I say, we can spot a fake.

The goal attempts became more wayward too. Noel-Williams shot well wide from distance, Ford lobbed over optimistically, Vernazza mis-hit a shot at Tracey from twenty-five yards. Neither side had sufficient cohesion to extend their possession nearer to goal, resulting in a match that was played around the halfway line to minimal effect.

Even when the home fans managed to generate some kind of atmosphere for the first time, it had more to do with boredom than anything that was happening on the field. Still, it had some kind of result - the level of activity was briefly raised, even if the quality of the football wasn't. After forty minutes, Brown's busy run from deep met with little resistance and he brought the first real save of the game from Alec Chamberlain with a low strike, although the Watford keeper was hardly tested in falling upon the shot as it ambled his way.

In cricket, the teams sometimes take an early lunch or tea if a break in play, due to weather or the end of an innings, occurs at a suitable time for the interval. Here, you could've made a fairly good case for an early half-time. Nothing was happening. Nothing much seemed likely to happen. Even when Robert Page did his best to assist United on their way - giving away a stupid, unnecessary free kick by tackling from behind, then compounding the error by showing dissent so that the referee booked him and moved the ball ten yards further forward - Devlin's driven shot from the set piece was caught competently by Chamberlain.

Tommy Smith's pacy burst up the right wing signalled a brief flurry of Watford attacking in injury time, yet it remained pretty unconvincing. As against Crystal Palace, it had long been obvious that just one goal would probably be decisive. And, in all honesty, we didn't play much better than at Selhurst. The difference is that we've recovered that little, crucial bit of extra determination and confidence, which is what always distinguishes the team that gets that all-important goal.

For the most part, the second half offered only a marginal improvement. We found entertainment in winding up Simon Tracey with classroom pranks as he stood, generally uninvolved, on the edge of his area in front of us. The ghostly calls of "SIIIIMON...SIIIIMON...SIIIIMON" drifted across the pitch for the first quarter of an hour and provided a bit of much-needed interest, in that you half-expected him to snap, turn round and start screaming "WHAT??? WHAT DO YOU WANT???" in a desperate attempt to shut us up. Disappointingly, he managed to ignore it...but it amused us for a while all the same.

This was a good thing, bearing in mind that nothing noteworthy took place for twelve minutes. Then Robinson and Mooney managed to lose possession between them on the halfway line, creating a break for United that damn nearly resulted in the first, vital goal. Instead, Montgomery - on for Devlin and, surprisingly, offering more of a threat - found his shot blocked by a combination of Darren Ward and David Kelly.

So, two important lessons from this game. First, it's not wise to fanny about on the ball when there's no-one behind you to clear up the mess that you're going to create. If you must show off your silky skills for the public to "ooh!" and "aah!" at, do it in the opposition half. Second, referees have cards that they show when you commit stupid fouls. These cards are bad, so it's best not to commit stupid fouls. In particular - mentioning no names, Neil Cox - try not to combine the two things, since giving the ball away by trying to dribble round an opponent on the edge of your own area, then getting booked for barging that same opponent over in an attempt to retrieve the situation makes you look like a complete arse. A performance with plenty of spirit, then...and plenty of annoying flaws too.

It was a goalless draw in the making. It required intervention from someone special, that someone being Tommy Mooney. As he received an extraordinary pass from Vernazza, lofted over fifty yards to the left wing with the outside of his boot, you urged him to have a bloody go. He thought about it, thought about knocking a safe pass back to Robinson, thought better of it. He had a bloody go, running at the defence, twisting and turning before blazing a shot towards goal that flicked the outside of the post before bulging the side netting. While Mooney's involvement in this game was only sporadic, his occasional contributions had a sharp, brilliant focus which contrasted so strongly with the foggy remainder.

Kelly headed wide from a free kick, Brown belted a long range effort wide. United were starting to get a head of steam up, yet the game remained sterile. Rare moments of class stood out, such as Peter Kennedy's sly through-ball to Tommy Smith that led to the youngster being bundled over in the box and appeals for a penalty being waved away by the referee. After we'd lost possession in an unfortunate position yet again, Montgomery hit a speculative shot wide.

Fittingly, it was Mooney who brought all this nonsense to an end. Really, the United defence should've cleared Cox's swinging free kick rather than allowing it to run through to the far post. There, they'd been daft enough to leave Mooney on his own. That's not something you'd advise when he's in this kind of form. He took a controlling touch before hammering a precise finish into the bottom corner, making a mockery of a tight angle. No messing.

In that moment, the entire game changed. In every respect, it improved beyond measure - United became far more purposeful in their attacking, then we sprang forward on the break in response. The arrival of Heidar Helguson and Nordin Wooter added some potency and fresh energy to a forward line that had started to flag, with Helguson looking far more impressive than of late. For the final fifteen minutes, the game was played through the middle of the pitch rather than stuck in it.

None of which did anything for our nerves, of course. Having taken the lead, we would've preferred the previous stalemate to have continued until the final whistle. Instead, we had end-to-end football to scream and shout at. For a while, our breaks seemed likelier to yield results than United's sustained pressure. Although Woodhouse volleyed wide under challenge, the chances were rather better at the other end. Helguson shot at Tracey from twenty yards - he just appeared more at ease with himself during this short appearance, more confident as an out-and-out striker and more willing to risk failure.

Then Mooney's curled cross inexplicably brought Tracey out to and beyond the edge of his penalty area to head clear. Inevitably, the ball fell to Nielsen, who was everywhere. With the keeper still in no man's land, the option of a lob was offered and taken, only for a defender to get back and head clear. A couple of minutes later, Nielsen's clean strike from eighteen yards just cleared the bar, then Tracey saved comfortably from Vernazza's drive.

As three minutes of injury time began, we were doing enough to hold on. There had been too many errors at the back for us to feel completely secure, obviously, and the number of Watford chances that I've just described shouldn't be taken as an indication that the game was being entirely played in the United area. But it looked safe. Just about.

Those three minutes seemed to last for about three hours, though. One last charge from the home side damn nearly resulted in a devastating equaliser as Montgomery's horrible, awkward shot from twenty-five yards brought a fumble from Chamberlain. The ball bounced out towards Suffo and we all inhaled sharply. Heroically, though, Chamberlain recovered the situation, diving at the striker's feet and pushing the ball away for a corner. He received lengthy treatment for an injury sustained in the collision. Incredibly, United then wasted the flag kick by hitting it straight to Noel-Williams at the near post, when surely it should've been dumped underneath the crossbar to test the keeper.

We played on. And on. Desperate scrambles in the area, someone shooting over from the middle of the melée to bring relief. And on. And on. Finally, mercifully, the whistle went.

We made hard work of this, in some ways. In other ways, it just was hard work. Plenty of improvements, tweaks, and fixes to be worked upon during the week...but that's what training's for. The result is what really matters, and the result is bloody tremendous.

The revival remains fragile. We could've lost this too, very easily. Nevertheless, things are back on course. The team has a shape and a definition that it lost for some time, the manager has plans that are working rather than ideas that might come off.

More than anything, the belief is back. And we've always been a more than decent team when we've believed in ourselves. This was a more than decent result.