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04/05: Reports:

Football League Cup Third Round, 26/10/04, 7.45pm
Sheffield United
After the Fall
By Matt Rowson

August, 1991. Reading. The Festival.

There are a great many odd looking people traipsing around this busy field. Tie-dye is in great evidence, as are Doc Martens, gothic makeup, hangovers and mud. This is what being eighteen is all about. Some people are here for "the craic", for the very odd and distinctive festival experiences, like the enormous campsite that has materialised and is then shrouded in fog, fed and mixed with smoke from campfires. Someone with two heads appears to be playing a guitar over there...

Some people may even be here for the human skulls that appear to be on sale at one very peculiar stall. But most people are here for the music. Yesterday we saw Nirvana, Iggy Pop and Sonic Youth. Today we have already seen Blur and Flowered Up with James, the Blue Aeroplanes, the Sisters of Mercy and the (mighty) Fall still to come.

But not just yet. Our compere, the incomparable John Peel, has interrupted proceedings late on a Saturday afternoon to read out the football results. All of them.

"Scottish League Division Two..."

October, 2004. Sheffield. I didn't feel much like football today.

Which is just as well really, because there wasn't much that could even generously be described as "football" going on at Bramall Lane. This suited us rather better than it did United, even if one puts the eventual outcome of proceedings temporarily to one side. Extensive injury list or not, this probably wasn't too far from United's first choice line up whilst for the second round running we got a result - and a clean sheet - away from home with, arguably, only five members of our first choice line-up in the sixteen. Boris, Devlin and Cox are all injured, Webber, Ardley and United's nemesis Heidar Helguson rested leaving Hameur and Bruce Dyer up front in front of a patchwork midfield of Young, Mahon, Blizzard and Chambers with Lloydy at right back and Jay DeMerit coming in in the centre.

As is becoming kinda traditional, we started brightly enough and created our best chance of the half within five minutes. Dominic Blizzard, in probably his most productive senior outing to date, scrapped for the ball on the edge of the United area and ultimately released Dyer wide on the right; his ball infield was stabbed into the side netting by Ashley Young.

The promising beginning wasn't a portent of things to come, however; for the rest of the half our attacks were quick and enthusiastic but ultimately ragged and fruitless... the ball forever accelerating away from our hardworking but ill-fed forward line.

United's first opening came when a neat through-ball released Montgomery on the right hand side of the penalty area beneath us, his low considered shot coming back off the inside of the post to be scuffed to safety by Jay DeMerit.

A distracting side show during the first half was a prolonged absence on the part of Blizzard, who appeared to have been instructed off to change his shirt but took the best part of ten minutes to reappear with numberless shirt and, presumably, some stitches to an unseen wound. In the meantime Sean Dyche had also been invited to leave the field of play having received treatment, whilst United were temporarily down to ten themselves after Michael Tonge collapsed in a heap unexpectedly and was ultimately replaced.

All of this fluctuation in team make-ups probably didn't help the flow of the game, which needed all the support it could get. The ball rattled around the midfield as if in a pinball machine; United had more of what possession there was, but seemed insistent on scoring by attrition rather than actually creating anything much, whilst the high tempo pressing employed by both sides didn't make for an open, free-flowing spectacle. A suggestion of a Watford break was conclusively snuffed when Doyley and Young exchanged quick passes down the right only for the latter's progress to be crudely and illegally curtailed, referee Clattenburg generously opting against a yellow card.

As the half closed, some form of pressure mounted on the Watford goal, albeit compressed by a sieve rather than anything terribly irresistible. Jagielka's shot from distance deflected wildly off Dyche to provoke some keystone cops pandemonium in our area from both sides before Doyley cleared. Then another long-range effort from Hurst deflected kindly for Andy Gray clear on goal on the right of the box; his firm, right-footed cross shot forced an astonishing, point-blank drop and push-round-the-post from Richard Lee, the outstanding moment of the half.

During the break, both The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks" and Joy Division's "Love will tear us Apart" were played over the tannoy.

The second half was more open, but no less ragged. Watford started brightly again with Bouazza being played in before Jagielka retrieved the situation. Again, the threat appeared greater at the other end however with a ball in from the right finding Jack Lester at the far post; he found the net, but United celebrations were curtailed by an offside flag. Shortly afterwards a high, deflected effort span over Lee but was caught close to the line. Again, the linesman ruled in our favour indicating that it had not entirely gone over; the crowd behind him disagreed vociferously. From our viewpoint behind the other goal we had no means of judging either this call or the previous offside, and could only reflect on what a fine job the officials do in difficult circumstances...

We had a more sustained and convincing threat of our own in this half however having only created once chance of note in the first forty-five. Bruce Dyer roared past the heavy looking Jagielka on the right flank, but his cross looking for Bouazza was cut out by a diving header from Morgan which gave us a corner. Dyer, presumably taking lessons from H, launched himself between two larger markers to connect with the subsequent centre but could only head over.

James Chambers' midfield experiment was rather odd... nominally playing on the left, his role did seem somewhat freer either by accident or design, which gave us both a lack of width on the downside and an extremely quick and aggressive loose cannon on the plus. One piece of dogged play saw him hare into space down the left before clipping in a decent cross with Bouazza just goal side of the last defender.

A deep Ashley Young free kick from the right found DeMerit and Dyche both unmarked at the far post... unfortunately the American's characteristic focus on the ball led him to somehow neglect to notice his central defensive partner; the two collided and the chance was lost. Then Bouazza fed Dyer on the left, who cut inside his marker across the edge of the area and drilled a low shot inside the near post which Kenny did well to push out.

At the other end, Jay DeMerit really caught the eye... like a wild animal protecting its litter, he would snarl belligerently out of his central mooring, chase off any insurgence with the help of the occasional clout into the stand (ball or player) before turning around and trotting dutifully back into position.

Andy Liddell was seeing a lot of the ball and getting plenty of crosses in from the right, although Richard Lee was the recipient of a large proportion of them. United's final chance of a breakthrough in normal time, however, came from a Harley cross from the left which appeared to strike DeMerit's arm. Mark Clattenburg was unmoved by the incident, if not by Colin who he rapidly dismissed from the touchline for his protests. This was reasonably entertaining in itself, but also a bit of an anticlimax... like a prize fight ending with a first round knockout. One sensed that the United manager had scarcely got into gear.

Extra time began with a couple of substitutions; Jack Smith's arrival for Ashley Young betrayed our gameplan; with two (natural) fullbacks on either flank containment was very much the priority. United's sub saw Jonathan Forte arrive for the inconsequential Jack Lester to a little trepidation; heavy legs didn't really need a sprightly striker to chase after. However after an early tight turn and cross-shot which went wide, Forte made little impact.

Chances were traded in the first period of extra time, with another deep Ashley Young free kick again finding Jay DeMerit unmarked at the far post, but just too far behind the ball to make contact. At the other end, Andy Gray's demeanour had slipped from irritable to downright pouty as decisions were appealed for with increasing desperation as the evening progressed, however he wrestled off DeMerit's attention to meet Harley's cross but volleyed wide.

The second half was a bit of a non-event, with Watford's strikers barely possessing the energy to run by this point leaving us with little outlet. An oasis of composure and elegance from Blizzard released a move down the right with pass inside the fullback, but it came to nothing. Gray came close again when heading over Bromby's chipped pass - a good chance that - before Watford nearly landed a sucker punch.

Bruce Dyer's creative attempt to contribute without running by positioning himself between Morgan and an incoming ball drew a foul; again, another deep cross found DeMerit clear at the far post, but an easy headed chance was interrupted by Morgan dragging his marker backwards, a clear foul perhaps counterbalancing United's earlier call. We'd heard tell of Kenny's reluctance to come for crosses, but Ards and H are in for another good day at Bramall Lane in a fortnight if this persists.

And so to penalties. Paul Shaw's late introduction was a curiosity, his predeliction for scoring against us one feature, his introduction purely to strike a spot kick another particularly as Paul Mayo remained on the bench. My phone beeped, my brother's text message nominating Shaw as his "penalty clown"...

The penalties took place beneath us, the stewards helpfully lining up along the front row of the upper tier where we had been forbidden to sit thus prohibiting a clear view and resulting in the away end, a healthier than anticipated 4 or 5 hundred who had been in good voice since the middle of the second half, rising to their feet.

Bruce Dyer with the first kick. It's a poor one, to the keeper's left at the traditional "comfortable height" and Kenny saves well. Bugger, here we go. Andy Gray slouches forward and finds the onion bag at last, putting his shot low and firm down the centre.

Then Gav, who hadn't had his best game interspersing the characteristic digging and chasing and the odd clever ball with too many stray ones. Nothing random about this finish though, crashing into the left hand corner.

Then fat boy Kenny puts the ball on the spot. An interesting gamble this... if Kenny's confident enough to take a kick and score, he's on a high and United are completely in the ascendancy. The downside of course is that if, as the keeper, he misses there's nowhere to hide... it's not as if he can retreat to the halfway line and hope that a colleague digs him out of it. He really needs to get it on target for starters, but he hits the post with Lee having guessed right. Two pens down each and it's all square again at 1-1. Not much sympathy being offered to United's keeper from above.

Hameur Bouazza is next up. He tries to do the walk away from the ball, spin and just hit it thing but stops on the turn like a rabbit caught in headlights, for a fraction of the second you fear the worst but he slides the ball elegantly into the bottom left hand corner.

Andy Liddell for United interrupts his run with a deliberate stumble that must have tested the generosity of the referee and certainly aggravated Richard Lee who passed on his verdict in no uncertain terms. His tirade at Mark Clattenburg, who may have been slightly bashful given his reluctance to dissuade Lee from continuing in any way, is only briefly interrupted by Jermaine Darlington slugging the ball into the roof dead centre and Lee is still complaining furiously as Paul Shaw approaches the spot.

United's pk "ringer" takes a decent spot kick. This is no dolly shot, fractured by nerves or by its taker's rustiness... low and firm in the corner to the keeper's left. But Richard Lee is there, the ball is pushed around the post at full stretch. Elation in the stand, and Jack Smith looks unusually icy as he puts the ball on the spot and then lashes it dismissively into the top corner to cue the obligatory charge from the halfway line.

The draw for the next round takes place this evening with the game itself only a fortnight away... the weekend before we return to Bramall Lane for the league fixture. United shaved this messy encounter, but we have nothing to fear on this evidence from the league game with, one expects, a greater array of attacking weaponry on show.

As for John Peel, his attention was probably focused on the New Den where Liverpool eased through against a Millwall side increasingly in its manager's image. However if he cared enough to let us know in August 1991 that Watford had drawn 2-2 at Newcastle and Sheffield United had lost 2-0 at home to Southampton, then he might have had half an eye on this one also. Rest in peace John, and thanks for everything.