By Matt Rowson
Do you remember how, when you were at school, you'd occasionally get playground kickabouts with two sides that were so chronically mismatched (due to the best players all being "mates", and therefore on the same team, or the better players on the thenceforth weaker side being distracted by an alternative pursuit and wandering off) that the score would just disappear off into irrelevance? That the losing team (invariably featuring yours truly) got grouchy and bitchy, halfheartedly attempting tackles whilst otherwise wandering through their humiliation and occasionally disputing whether that last effort, dribbled in around a bored goalkeeper, made it twelve or thirteen-nil? I was reminded of these experiences at around 9.30 last night. I can't think why...
The first discovery on arriving at Bramall Lane was that I'd kinda overdone it with the multiple layers of Guinness and clothing adorned in the traditionally hospitable Royal Standard prior to heading to the ground. Dave's ipod had selected "It's grim up north" by the KLF as the soundtrack to our arrival in the steel city (as Dave pondered whether the evening's fare would reignite his enthusiasm for progress at Vicarage Road) but it was a pleasant evening, and the leather jacket was soon discarded.
We were seated, for the first time in a number of seasons, in the lower tier behind the goal and whilst the view was still reasonable the lack of ceiling to trap and project the noise did little for the atmosphere in the away end. Nor did its sparse population, particularly out on the flanks where we were situated... the prospect of a longish midweek trip for a game on Sky in February had been enough to leave plenty of spaces in seats around us, giving the stand the air of our away ends during Kenny Jackett's season in the Third Division nearly a decade ago. On the pitch, however, things have moved on quite a lot since then...
For starters we are wearing Red Shorts, a consequence of Sheffield opting for black. I'm tempted to reopen a debate by pointing out that the first appearance of the yellow-red combo this season also proved to herald the first victory against any of the current top six (any victory, let alone a walloping). But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The confirmation of Ben Foster's return in place of the Veteran had been greeted with only slightly stifled cheers in the pub; Alec dropped to the bench and McNamee, whose away form hasn't always convinced to the same degree as his home showing, was out of the sixteen altogether. For United, Akinbiyi was making a home debut partnering Steve Kabba up front, but ex-'Orns Dyer and Webber (injured) didn't feature.
The game started as it was to continue... wide open, boisterous and aggressive. Henderson had already drifted out to the left during one attack when a neat King header found him loitering wide; his fine, low cross was met by the diving Eagles whose header beat Kenny at the near post. A rapier-thrust of a goal, one-nil after five minutes and we never lost the initiative thereafter. Betty was later to comment that he felt that the goal had come a bit early for us, but our feeling at the time was that if United were at all jumpy about our recent form and good record at Bramall Lane, much better that the point was rammed home early doors before they got up a head of steam.
The home crowd, whose rendition of "Greasy Chip Butty" was the centrepiece of a noisy opening, were immediately subdued. On the pitch though, United came back at us with some purpose. A ball down the left held up for Kabba to roar onto it, only to be dispossessed by a typically rhetorical tackle by Demerit. The big American was to have one rush of blood, charging after the ball into the midfield as United attacked leaving an aching chasm behind him, but for the most part was bullish, reliable and committed and a key factor in making Akinbiyi look like a very poor use of a million or so. In nicking Marlon King for half a million, incidentally, we are perhaps repaying Gary Megson for his lack of grace in pinching Robbo for two-and-sixpence two years ago.
Michael Tonge gained possession on the left, cut inside and flung a low shot at goal that tested Foster low down to his right. Jagielka crossed from the left for Ifill to nod a header into the keeper's arms. Up the other end Marlon King was slipping menacingly into gear, prowling across the edge of the box from left to right before shooting wide. A prolonged period of Watford possession ended with Matthew Spring firing high and wide.
United's attacking energy seemed to be focused on the flanks where Lloyd Doyley stood up to the questions asked of him by Kabba and Armstrong, Stewart coping less comfortably with Paul Ifill. Noticeably the pitch seemed much heavier on the flanks, where backheaders and passes were continuously underhit, than in the centre where it appeared bone hard, something that was to cost United later.
On twenty-five minutes came the incident that reshaped the game. From our vantage point the passage of events wasn't altogether clear... the grounded David Unsworth had clearly attempted to shield the ball from the attentions of Chris Eagles; when Eagles too went to ground those with better eyesight than me were quickly on their feet, pointing the finger to the traditional one-syllable chant. The view of the Brighton jury, quickly relayed by phone, was initially somewhat split with one party adamant that a red card was merited, the other less convinced but later hardening his judgment. As Eagles fell, Unsworth had shoved him in the face... more a stupid challenge than a violent one, particularly stupid from an experienced pro straight in front of the referee, but an unequivocal red card as Colin himself later grudgingly acknowledged. The ever-reticent Akinbiyi took issue with Eagles, presumably for getting his head in the way, and both were yellow carded.
Up to this point we had been sparring effectively, comfortably protecting our one-goal lead without ever really threatening to put United to the sword. For the last hour of the game there was only really one team in it. The indignation that always greets a red card to a home player, utterly misplaced on this occasion, fuelled some gusto for a brief period, and Eagles was quickly in the action again blocking Bromby's low shot. Ifill also found space on the right, completely losing Jordan Stewart on the break before squaring for Demerit to intercept. His flame was quelled, however, with Ashley Young twice booting the ball into touch off his rival winger's backside to increasing amusement from behind the goal, and United's threat proved to be punchless hot air.
At the far end, the scene was being set for the second half... Spring drew three defenders before flicking sideways to Eagles, whose vicious shot deflected onto the crossbar. Towards the end of the half, with some rare sloppiness at the back threatening to give the Blades an opening that they'd scarcely have deserved, Jay Demerit kept a cool head and delivered a fine long ball to the omnipresent King, who was seemingly harshly pulled up having turned his marker. The half ended with the Hornets in control, and looking comfortable going into the break. This was ours to lose.
Lucky Half Time Chocolate: Mars Bar
Reason: Solid, dependable, not associated with letting leads slip away from home
Level of success: Irrelevant. Who needs chocolate when you have Red Shorts? And Marlon...
The teams rejoined us in the second half to the tune of the Star Wars theme. Recorded, of course, in the Watford Colosseum. This really wasn't United's evening.
Betty had made his first change at the break; Chris Eagles had become the focus of attention from the stands due in presumably varying degrees to his association with Sheffield Wednesday, his scoring of the opening goal and his rather incidental role in Unsworth's dismissal. He'd looked rattled and vulnerable, and being on a yellow card his withdrawal for the less fragile and reliably wholehearted James Chambers seemed a sound call.
Much as we'd looked comfortable as the first half closed, it seemed reasonable to expect a United onslaught at the start of the second half. Instead, we hit them very hard again and all but finished the game. Spring's looping pass from midfield put Bromby under pressure with Marlon King homing in. Immediately you were gripped by a bloodlust, a bit like watching a wildlife programme with a lion stalking a lame wildebeest. You know what's gonna happen, you know it ain't gonna be pretty, you can't tear your eyes away. Marlon snarled onto his prey mercilessly as the ball bounced, tussled past him and hit the ball on the half volley, pure crisp and lethal with Bromby stumbling irrelevantly in his wake. The celebration in front of us looked as orchestrated and elaborate as some of our recent set plays. Two-nil.
The next five or ten minutes illustrated the impossibility of United's position. Sometimes, football folklore goes, it's tougher playing against ten men. But not if you're two-up away from home against a fancied side with expectant support, when you have more pace on the break than seems quite fair. A scruffy United attack came to nothing off too many limbs and not enough space, and as James Chambers broke down the right the home side looked thoroughly exposed. Ashley Young picked up possession on the right flank, glided inside two tackles and cut a left footed shot wide. Minutes later Marlon King gained possession wide on the right and hit the most evil right footed drive perilously close to Kenny's near post, the keeper beating it wide. From the corner Kenny gained possession under challenge from Chambers, who he provocatively lashed out at. Chambers' lack of response typified the discipline that Betty was to praise later.
Not that certain precautions weren't taken by the manager to preserve that discipline, and our numerical advantage. After a scruffy but irrelevant foul by Spring on Jagielka in the midfield, with Tonge's appeals for a second yellow for Spring smacking of a rather encouraging desperation on the part of the home side, Betty withdrew Spring in favour of Bangura. The young midfielder's introduction has been a cork up the arse of many a game this season, but on this occasion he proved quite excitable and we were briefly concerned that a fifth yellow of the campaign would have ruled him out of next week's game for which Spring is already ineligible.
Bangura's first contribution was tidy in the extreme, however, trapping a loose ball and sliding a deceptive pass through for King to roar onto down the right, his square ball being intercepted. From here, however, United broke and a momentary loss of concentration cost us... an aimless ball in from the left was flicked on adroitely by Short catching Mackay cold; Ifill was in behind him to finish and halve our lead.
Had we not already secured a second goal this development might have proven more consequential; as it was a wake-up call was sounded and United didn't threaten again. The inevitable flurry of enthusiasm following their unexpected clawback was largely channelled into bawling optimistically at the referee as United players went down under challenge on the right flank. Chris Morgan had been introduced at centre back in a defensive rejig with Geary going off, presumably to present a threat from set pieces but such opportunities were not to be forthcoming for the home side.
A Watford break down the right ended with an awesome volley from Young from the edge of the area drawing an equally awesome tip over from Kenny. United failed to deal with the corner, Marlon seized on a loose ball in the box and lashed home his second, our third, with his left foot. Fifteen goals this season, and this the first to have been scored with anything but his right. Cue further orchestrated celebration.
The remainder of the game was largely a procession, with the only complaint, if there can be one, being that we didn't crown our utter dominance with an even more damning victory after twenty minutes against thoroughly exhausted, dispirited opponents. In the stands, we attempted to generate enough noise to do justice to such an occasion, despite the knowledge that most of the product was inevitably vanishing upwards. One gentleman behind me replicated Gavin Mahon's heroics in stamping all over the midfield by resolutely leading the chorus despite the strains of such effort quickly telling on his vocal chords.
Morgan exemplified United's frustration with a silly barge on King on the edge of the box. Young's vicious free kick would have caused Kenny problems had it not been straight down his throat. Another James Chambers burst down the right ended with a ball drifted agonisingly too far from Marlon's forehead. The utterly terrifying King won another free kick off the thoroughly perplexed Armstrong near the touchline... the goalmouth morass that this provoked really ought to have yielded another goal as the ball bounced invitingly, TV pictures later suggesting that Craig Short's arm had played no small part in preventing this eventuality. At this point, with United punch drunk on the ropes, we introduced Hameur Bouazza for Ashley Young. Presumably to slow the game down a bit, or summat.
His first involvement was a break with King down the right, resulting in Marlon's throughball to the escaping Frenchman coming back off the youngster's heel, for which he was rather harshly admonished. As the OlÚs gathered momentum in the away end, United's occasional and forlorn breaks only served to open up space behind them... at one point a burst down the left saw us with a seemingly irretrievable numerical advantage until Bangura fluffed his opportunity and allowed United to recover, the eighteen year old stomping around scolding himself furiously for the next two minutes.
Finally the fourth came, and it was a fine thing. King and Stewart appeared locked in time-killing mode wide on the left, before King spread an accomplished and perceptive pass across the face of the area to Mahon. Mahon played a surprisingly delicate one-two with Mackay before dipping a short ball into the box. Bromby had another forgettable moment, and Bouazza rolled a first time shot acutely across the face of Kenny and in off the far post. At this point, roughly half of the remaining United support departed en masse.
There was still time for Kenny's night to get worse as he fluffed a cross under minimal attention from Henderson before the game drew to a close. In the back of the stand the reaction was quite distinct from the air-punching that had greeted the last-minute winner at Carrow Road; Dave typified many a response by chuckling uncontrollably like an idiot, an affliction that Dad and I both suffered at intervals during the trip back down the motorway. Only when arriving home in the early hours and flicking on the telly to see Chris Eagles' goal replayed did the dazed giddiness give way to a need to bellow quite loudly. Which I controlled, since Tsega was asleep...
The post-match reaction has been quite universally glowing; one suspects that we won't be regarded as chancers who've somehow bungled their way into the top six any longer, thus providing Betty with some new challenges. Even Colin came as close as he'll ever come to a gracious concession of defeat, although barbed with asides that the scoreline "didn't reflect the game" (indeed, it could have been more...), Eagles "stamped on Unsworth" and the referee barely made a right decision all night (the sending off aside). If there's a cherry on the icing on the cake after this fixture, it's an apposite reminder that Colin really ain't that good under pressure...
This weekend, an awkward fixture for ourselves (on-form Coventry, albeit at home) and the more so for United (Tony Pulis' anti-football at Plymouth). Next Tuesday, whilst we travel to Leeds, United entertain Reading...
Bring it on.