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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 04/05/03, 1.30pm
Sheffield United
A raised glass and a long rest
By Ian Grant

Back again, then? So soon?

Ah, but there's something to write about, at last. Something worth writing about as well, one last pleasant surprise to finish a pleasantly surprising season. And so, thankfully, we'll have none of Wednesday's histrionics this time, no palaver or fuss. A match worth describing, to conclude a season worth remembering.

Really, the most enjoyable aspect of yesterday's victory was that it summarised our successes so well. For the final action of 2003/03 had much in common with its best action, albeit that several of the personnel were less familiar. Some of it was ragged, some of it was a real struggle, much of it wasn't especially pretty. But the attitude - determined, focused, assertive - overcame all of that in the end, enabling the team to build foundations for a deserved victory. Although we can play better, and we have played better, much of this term's progress has been based upon performances like this.

You could draw too many conclusions. About next season's squad, about some of the young players, about prospects in general. Better, I think, to take it as a full stop, for now. Of course, campaigns such as this will ultimately be judged on what follows - and our last season of moderate progress in Division One was followed by relegation, lest we forget - but we can't do that just yet. We can, however, look back with considerable satisfaction upon a year of honest, committed and determined hard work, a year that warrants a raised glass and a long rest. We do have much to look forward to. But there are more than one or two things to look back upon as well....

This was a little bit more than a meaningless end-of-season match, then. The skies might've been cloudless and blue, the atmosphere relaxed, the points unimportant...but the performance was strong and resolute, and slightly out of keeping with the rest of the occasion. Certainly, it contrasted strongly with the last couple of games, particularly as it owed much to a powerful and well-organised defensive display. That we yielded no more than two or three half-chances to Sheffield United and then out-did them by scoring twice from set pieces tells you most of what you need to know. The right note, clear and true, to finish the piece.

I found the first half thoroughly absorbing, although that didn't appear to be the general opinion. True, there was relatively little goalmouth action...but that was rather the point, since a large portion of the forty-five minutes was spent repelling some sustained pressure from the visitors. Particularly in the opening spells, United were much the better side and dominated possession...yet they were constantly prevented from translating that into anything more meaningful.

We were much more resilient than for some time. The thoroughly conscientious Lloyd Doyley shut down attacks on his side, frustrating Ndlovu as he'll frustrate so many others. On the other side, Wayne Brown rather disproved the theory that he's unhappy in the left-back position by putting in his most consistent, focused ninety minutes since his return. In the middle, the resumption of the Neil Cox-Marcus Gayle partnership was instantly successful - tellingly, my notes record not a single headed opportunity in the entire match, which is a fairly extraordinary achievement in itself. If there was a weak link, it was that Richard Lee, not the tallest keeper you've ever seen, sometimes struggled with some crosses amid the forest of lanky bodies. But we even came to compensate for that.

It meant that United needed to take their chances. They had just one in the first half, and they wasted it. After ten minutes, Asaba managed to flick the ball around Marcus Gayle at the second attempt and was instantly able to line up an angled shot from ten yards. He got it all wrong, though, and the awkward half-volley bounced harmlessly past the near post. Although Windass, much to the comical annoyance of his manager on the touchline, was caught offside when he went clear and McCall glanced the crossbar with a rising drive from twenty yards later on, the Sheffield United threat was otherwise kept well under control.

Which left us to build the rest of the performance. We did so erratically, somewhat hampered by increasingly over-ambitious passing from Richard Johnson and by the presence of two forwards happier when facing goal than as target men. In the former case, the midfielder's evident frustration at his inability to find the accuracy to match his vision made you want to put an arm around his shoulder and calm him down, get him to focus on keeping it simple until everything settled down. In the latter case, the perserverance of both Scott Fitzgerald and Jason Norville was commendable, even if they were often second best to more experienced opponents. They kept at it, they got their rewards eventually.

Eventually. But it might've been slightly sooner. When we were unable to pass through the opposition in open play, we found that Anthony McNamee's delivery from set pieces was little short of exemplary. Frequently muscled out of the frantic exchanges, the youngster justified his inclusion by this alone. From the first of these situations, a free kick on the right after twenty-three minutes, Neil Cox headed over at the far post when his unchallenged position might've allowed him to do rather better. Four minutes later, we created an opening in open play, and from a lovely move too - a vintage Johnno pass to find McNamee on the left, a sweeping cross, and Scott Fitzgerald unable to get enough power on the header as he backed away at the far post.

Goalless at the interval, then. But it was a positive and pleasing half nonetheless, much more clear-headed than of late. Indeed, we very nearly finished it with the opening goal as Allan Nielsen released Scott Fitzgerald, whose pace enabled him to stay clear of chasing defenders but whose control rather let him down as he attempted to round Kelly and was denied by a flailing hand. There were several occasions when you felt that the striker was experiencing something new - that extra bit of athleticism from a keeper, that touch more strength from a defender, that millisecond less to line up a shot - and learning a lesson as he rapidly adjusts first to professional football and now to the first team. The point is, however, that, just as Andy Hessenthaler had that phenomenal work-rate to keep him going, you suspect that Scott Fitzgerald's goals will buy him time to get used to everything else.

For a while, the second half followed a similar pattern. After a minute, Rankine's swerving shot from the edge of the box brought an enormous "ooh!" from the Vic Road end...but, from the Rookery, you could see that it had missed by about five yards. Having given up on the idea of beating Lloyd Doyley, Ndlovu forced him into retreat after a quarter of an hour, and blazed a drive narrowly over from twenty yards. Sporadic reminders that we were playing one of the division's better sides. But only sporadic.

And then, as if suddenly seeing the finishing line, we drove the advantage home. Having established the basis for the victory, we spent the remainder of the game reducing Sheffield United to something approaching disarray and thoroughly enjoying ourselves in the process. Once again, Scott Fitzgerald's marvellously blinkered eye for goal set things in motion, and he was unfortunate to be denied by a fine save from Kelly after Jason Norville had won possession and Jamie Hand had seen a shot deflected and Fitzgerald had latched onto the chance with extraordinary confidence and lashed a drive towards the far corner from what appeared to be a tight angle. He's really not shy, you know....

We didn't have to wait long. Anthony McNamee's corners were fast and accurate all afternoon and one of these, from the left, fell to Marcus Gayle on the far post after nineteen minutes. Ever aware, he knocked it back to Allan Nielsen on the edge of the box. He completely mis-hit the half-volley, sending it bouncing and spinning into the six yard box...where Neil Cox applied the final touch, deflecting the ball in with his shin and then wheeling away to greet the Rookery. An untidy goal, a scrappy goal. But a goal, and sod the rest.

(For heaven's sake, don't go, Coxy. We could have so much fun....)

From there, we won it convincingly. We won it well. Another Jason Norville challenge and another chance barely two minutes later. He rather fouled it up, shooting weakly rather than squaring to either Scott Fitzgerald or Jamie Hand...but, hey, it seems a bit unfair to praise one striker for constantly trying to score and then condemn another for doing precisely the same thing.

Besides, the whole purpose of giving experience to youngsters is to give them experience. Inconsistency is only to be expected, and is something shared by all of them, albeit that Norville's inconsistency is often more obvious. But Anthony McNamee gets crowded out, Jamie Hand gets reckless sometimes, Lloyd Doyley needs to work on what happens when he has the ball, and so on. They all need time and patience. They'll get it from the management - and this season's careful, considerate use of youngsters has been in contrast to the previous regime's rather more random policy - and they deserve it from the supporters too.

Perhaps I'm being too careful myself. For Jason Norville seemed to forget all about it quickly enough, and was unfortunate not to score when he stretched to reach another McNamee corner ahead of his markers and only just failed to make the required contact to volley home. It span wide, but the ball was in the net soon enough. Another McNamee corner and a firm, downward header from Marcus Gayle that sent Kelly down to his left. He couldn't quite gather it on the line. He didn't get a second chance. Scott Fitzgerald was already there, and by his sheer presence managed to force the ball into the net. The first of many? Well, hopefully. For now, just enjoy the first for its own sake.

Mind you, the second might've followed right behind. It was probably never going to come from the next attempt, an insanely ambitious cross-shot that missed the near post after an intelligent break involving Jason Norville and Allan Nielsen. Big Ron would, probably rightly, have suggested that Scott Fitzgerald has been reading comic books at that stage.

But he was extremely unlucky later on. It was a splendid move, our best of the match. The attack came down the left - Jamie Hand's sand wedge into space, Jason Norville reacting first and setting up Anthony McNamee with a delicate backheel, Scott Fitzgerald pulling away into space at the near post - and it only lacked a finish. Except that it didn't lack a finish at all, really, for Fitzgerald's precise effort was calculated and controlled, designed to wrong-foot Kelly as he scrambled back across his goal. It did so, but was kept out by the keeper's trailing boot. Desperately close, and an indication that our new acquisition is an intelligent and instinctive goalscorer.

I've already skipped past a couple of Sheffield United efforts - a comfortable save for Richard Lee from Kabba's shot on the turn, then a firm drive over from Tonge - but, in all honesty, they seem unimportant. They had bigger things to look forward to, we had a victory to consolidate and celebrate. While I dare say that the visitors' dressing room was lively enough at full-time, and we might've managed to dent their pride just slightly, that we were allowed to enjoy our end-of-season high note did nobody much harm. And it meant that we could let Allan Nielsen take a bow in the final couple of minutes, a substitution that was greeted by a vast ovation for the departing Dane that, to his apparent embarrassment, continued for the whole of injury time.

And so it ends. With awards, applause, chants, laps of honour, and all the usual stuff. With plenty of smiles. All the usual end-of-season stuff, except that the season in question has been decidedly unusual in so many ways. Perhaps the greatest tribute that can be paid to the people involved - whether managers, coaches, players, staff, or supporters - is that we've done more than survive. That is a remarkable achievement in its own right.

There was only one major disappointment yesterday. (Well, actually, there were two...but I'll leave Brighton out of this for now.) As a high clearance landed on the roof of the East Stand, bounced up the slope and then surrendered to gravity, its eventual landing point was surely pre-destined. Underneath the edge of the roof, firmly rooted in the technical area, was Colin, absorbed and oblivious. The ball bounced one last time and dropped towards its target, and we willed it on its way with a great cheer.

It only missed landing directly on his big, stupid head by a few inches.

You can't have everything, though.