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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 13/12/03, 5.35pm
Sheffield United
Accurate recollection
By Matt Rowson

Some match reports are easy to write. This is often the case after a fine performance or an eventful game, when it's a pleasure to relive and reconsider the passage of events.

Other reports are just a pain. How does one take any joy in or shed any new light on yet another irritating defeat at Grimsby or Bradford, for example? On days like these, the match report is merely something to be endured.

On yet further, and mercifully rarer, occasions, circumstances conspire against you in such a way as to render meaningful comment or even accurate recollection of events completely impossible. The coincidence of Peter Fincham's thirtieth birthday jamboree, and BSaD's first choice and first reserve match reporters for the day being rendered ineligible by the passage of events is one such set of circumstances. I suppose I should be grateful that the match was televised and that many of you will know what happened already. Just don't pull me up on any inaccuracies of detail...

The day had "started" early. An eleven-thirty rendez-vous at Kings Cross signalled the onset of a flow of alcohol that was measured but steady for the next five hours or so, this concluding in The Howard across the road from Sheffield railway station. The vast group was nonetheless a number of individuals lighter than advertised, which proved to be the pattern for the day, but was augmented in number in Sheffield by chairman Graham Simpson. My memory is of a fairly fleeting visit, but all details were somewhat sketchy by this stage so this may not be accurate.

We got to Bramall Lane by 5.15 with the majority of the group several units to the good; nonetheless, Rupert can feel rather hard done by at being the only member of the party to be refused entry. He seemed perfectly coherent to me, but perhaps I'm judging things relatively... certainly, his general appearance might fool the uninitiated. Anyway, a brief and sobering walk later, Rupert managed to gain entry to the home "end" in the tier below us (presumably a different set of admission criteria apply to home fans) before being identified and ejected once again.

On the pitch, Watford lined up with Heidar Helguson making a very welcome and noisily greeted return to the starting eleven for the first time since August, this decision instigated by Danny Webber's unavailability with a knock. Marcus Gayle was back in for Sean Dyche, having recovered from his injury; otherwise, the side was the same one that drew with Forest a week ago. Sheffield United were led out by Robert Page, who was warmly greeted by the travelling Hornets and responded in kind.

To summarise, the first half was a bit of a mess - which suited us much better than it suited United. The home side started brightly, fashioning an attack down the left which required Marcus Gayle to interject elegantly but crucially before bringing the ball clear. From then on United's attack was narrow and their direct threat limited for the rest of the half. Jamie Hand had a good twenty minutes or so in midfield, burrowing into challenges and breaking up play; Neil Cox looking thoroughly in charge when United's play got that far. Shortly before the break, Watford had a shout for a penalty when Fitzgerald appeared to have been caught by Fettis. I'm unable to comment directly, as I was already off in search of (solid) sustenance - still not in the official position of BSaD reporter at this point, else I might have taken my responsibilities more seriously. That this task had defaulted to me didn't dawn on me until the end of the game.

By then, the number of our contingent on the wrong side of the turnstiles had increased considerably, with four further ejections and a number of associated voluntary departures. The perhaps injudicious level of alcohol consumed by the individuals involved played a role here, but so too did some particularly officious and aggressive stewarding which seemed designed to provoke rather than defuse any problems. The fact that Bramall Lane hasn't needed rebuilding in the past twelve months suggests that tactics are reined in a little when the likes of Millwall or Cardiff come to town; here, all the stewarding achieved was to turn an affable and slightly dozy crowd into something aggressive and riled.

Once again, nil-nil at the interval. At the risk of labouring a point, only Rob Earnshaw (at Cardiff) and Scott Fitzgerald (at Norwich) have scored first-half goals in the last eleven Watford games. On this occasion, this was a welcome statistic however; goalless at a punchless United was just fine.

The second half was a different kettle of fish altogether. United made a statement of intent, bringing off the invisible Peschisolido for lummox Ashley Ward and attacking purposefully and aggressively as the half commenced. It didn't take long for them to convert this pressure... Wayne Brown's questionable positioning led to the concession of a right-wing corner seven minutes in. Michael Tonge found Phil Jagielka, who headed down and in at the far post.

Within two minutes it was so nearly game over... Jack Lester, who had looked bright and willing for United all afternoon, was released into acres of space and clear through on goal. Pidgeley came charging out to tackle, but Lester beat him to the ball and flicked it over him. Pidgeley's reaction was instinctive, a jab of the hand to prevent the ball from going past him and referee Salisbury had no option but to dismiss the keeper for handling outside the area. An interesting one, though...we lost a man - Jamie Hand, as it turned out, who was sacrificed for Alec Chamberlain - but Pidgeley's decision, however automatic, saved a certain goal and probably any chance we had of getting something from the game.

At the time, however, Sheffield was feeling very cold and those remaining in the away end were as sober as they had been for several hours. Irrespective of the detail of what happened next, the respect that is due to the side for salvaging anything from this position cannot be overstated.

Cook was brought on for Scott Fitzgerald, giving our attacks balance and one very definite focus... Heidar Helguson, who once again appears to be pulling off the feat of living up to the expectations inevitably foisted upon him during his long absence. This was a thoroughly Heidar display, all the more impressive for the length of time he's been out. His shoulders appeared to visibly square in preparation for the impending conflict as we lined up in, effectively, a four-four-one formation.

Perhaps the distraction that was Heidar oiled the build-up to Watford's unheralded equalising goal... but that's paying a disservice to both the sublime ball played through by the effervescent Paul Devlin and the movement of Jack Smith to carve a space on the corner of the box. Smith, who has been growing in assurance with every game he plays for the first team, struck the ball hard and low past Fettis from the edge of the area to rapturous disbelief in the upper tier behind the goal. It's tempting, but a little irrelevant to draw comparisons between Jack and Tommy here. Insert those yourself, if you're so inclined.

Within two minutes, and still not twenty minutes into the second half, disbelief had turned to jubilation. Watford won a corner on the left, Ardley's delivery was knocked back to him and his second ball in was absolutely awesome, a curving beast of a cross that howled into the far post. On reflection, had Heidar not powered a brutal header into the net we'd perhaps have had cause for concern... this is, after all, his territory and his sustenance; more Watford goals came from this avenue (Ardley cross to Heidar battering in far post) last season than any other. But, as it turned out, no problem... except in the Watford end, where the celebration is raucous enough to threaten to send its perpetrators off the edge of the tier. Stewards not looking happy. No matter. The mad Iceman is back. Oh yes.

Heidar only lasted another seven minutes before departing in utter exhaustion to be replaced by Micah Hyde. This left Paul Devlin to improvise in the slightly unfamiliar role of target man with some success... but his was far from the only heroic performance of the last twenty minutes. Alec Chamberlain's form at the start of the season was as ropey as it's ever been in a largely monumental seven-year Watford career, but this was the veteran back at his best pulling off two outstanding stops to keep United's rejuvenated and slightly indignant attack at bay. Neil Cox, too, put in yet another fine performance and an utterly implausible and invaluable win looked on the cards as United attacks were either crushed, or fell foul of a hurried finishing touch.

Not to be, unfortunately. Rather a shame, too, that it was the otherwise flawless Smith that gave away the penalty which salvaged a point for the home side, too slow in drawing his arm away from a left-wing cross. Jack Lester put the spot-kick to Alec's left... and hit it just firmly enough for the shot to beat the touch that the keeper got to it.

We might still have won the game even then, as we flowed forward again with admirable resolve. United's defence appeared to scatter in disarray as a quick break resulted in Ardley being teed up on the edge of the area. His low shot was deliberate and precise, and could scarcely have been placed better... but Fettis was equal to it, getting down quickly to push it round his right-hand post, a fine stop.

Then Cook received the ball on the left, squirreled past the fullback, closed in as the away end rose to its feet in unison, and span a shot wickedly across the face of Fettis' goal only to see the keeper again equal to the task.

A fine point, then... and in the circumstances, a quite phenomenal point. Yes, it's a little frustrating to lose a valuable lead... and to yet again drop points in the last five minutes, for the sixth time this season. Awkward, too, to pick up yet another suspension, another red card, which will see Lenny miss the Cardiff game. The week before Chelsea, interestingly...

But perhaps one shouldn't be too critical of such carelessness. People in glass houses, and all that. We mislaid our next team member between Bramall Lane and The Howard, later salvaged by a search party. Two more managed to avoid the train at Sheffield station. Most dramatically, one individual managed to remain on the train at the Doncaster change and was last heard of heading towards Leeds... without his wallet, for good measure, which a well-meaning friend had seen abandoned on a table and rescued, assuming that its owner had already disembarked. Thus the number left singing about an implausible number of Paul Devlins to the tune of "Partridge in a Pear Tree" between Kings Cross and Euston much, much later in th evening was dramatically reduced... and there was still time for two more to drop from the group as they failed to beat the barriers to catch the slow plodding stopper which crawled into Watford Junction at twelve fifteen this morning.

Our last six games have seen us slip back towards the relegation zone, but given the quality of the opposition we've faced, not to mention the resolve and level of our own performances and how close we've come to reaping more than six points, we should be more optimistic than our league position might suggest. If the spirit that the side demonstrated today is anything to go by, the rest of the season will be very enjoyable indeed.