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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 13/03/04, 3.00pm
Sheffield United
Letting go
By Ian Grant

This week, I 'ave been mostly readin' "Catch-22".

Actually, you can't mostly read "Catch-22", it being the kind of novel that defiantly refuses to slip quietly into the background when you're doing something else. It simply won't leave you alone, and it's much more likely that you'll find yourself taking an afternoon's holiday, refusing to answer the phone and staying up until stupid hours of the morning to fit your life around it. It's just an itch that needs to be scratched...and, as it turns out, it's pretty good preparation for a visit to Vicarage Road at the moment.

Because Joseph Heller himself begins to extend his central message - that war is merely an elaborate, tiresome and hugely destructive joke, from which desertion is pretty much the only viable option - to other functions of humanity, particularly capitalism. And he would've had a bloody field day with football. After all, if you don't know whether to laugh, cry or rage impotently, there's something deeply wrong with the object of your emotions. The latter two reactions were both explored in some detail yesterday, but only laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all could've made it in any way bearable.

Actually, if you viewed this with any objectivity, we've seen far worse this season, and we were, I think, probably just about worth a point against one of the division's promotion-chasers. Before you write in with your complaints, however, I'm well aware that it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter at all. Performances are simply irrelevant, results are all that counts now. Which means, unfortunately, that we're utterly buggered.

What, you can here for hope? No, my friend. Wrong place. Y'see, unlike plenty of others, I don't see any easy answers. Taking those that are fit - and even taking those that aren't - there isn't a team, a formation, a solution within this squad, until key players perform to anything like their potential. It's not there...and, for all that Ray Lewington undoubtedly has his favourites (and if that's a crime, everyone's guilty of it), I'd rather rely on them than some of the other suggestions. Bring back Wayne Brown and Paolo Vernazza again? Pray that Scott Fitzgerald might get a loose ball to stick away, even if it's his only touch in ninety minutes? Hope that Lee Cook is in one of those moods, as opposed to one of those other, much more frequent, moods? Is that all we have to cling to now?

Apparently, yes. None of which changes with the manager, of course. Indeed, it probably gets worse, given that the cost of the inevitable change-over - for, how ever long it takes for the decision to be taken, we're now so far beyond the point where any logical argument will suffice that it's almost impossible to go back - will presumably impact on the budget available for the squad. And on the great, big hole in the club's finances. That doesn't matter, obviously. As long as Neal Ardley's on the pitch and Lee Cook isn't, nobody's listening. It'll be interesting to see what happens if the next incumbent of the post takes the same view as the current one. Not that interesting, though, since he'll be on his way in a couple of years regardless.

As you may have gathered, I regret that. Deeply. Ray Lewington is, was and will be the right man for the job. A sensible, intelligent, experienced manager with a fine coach alongside and, it still seems, with the players more or less behind him. Who, by and large, has taken good, solid decisions that have been in the best interests of both club and team. That doesn't matter, obviously. Not as long as Neal Ardley's on the pitch and Lee Cook isn't, as previously discussed. The argument hasn't been lost, just left behind...and those of us who'd like Ray Lewington and Terry Burton to stay are, essentially, only talking to ourselves. Actually, more than that, it's not just that I'd like them to stay, but that I'd like to support the team that they've been trying bloody hard to create. Doesn't matter, though. Even if Graham Simpson remains among our number, he no longer makes those decisions.

Hell, does anyone really want to pick over these bones? Will it tell us anything new, anything that we don't know already? If you're still holding out hope for Tuesday, then I applaud your optimism...and you might take some heart from a moderately rousing finale, even if its stirring passion was mainly manifested in Heidar Helguson narrowly escaping another red card for a stupid elbow and Paul Devlin being pointlessly petulant with anyone who came near him, friend or foe. And Paul Mayo had a competent, quietly impressive home debut too. Otherwise, though, there ain't much that you'd want to look at, good or bad. It just was, and oppressively so. Frankly, Tuesday can't come slowly enough.

When they weren't in the side, Sean Dyche and Jerel Ifil were, apparently, The Answer and it was only Ray Lewington's much-heralded and little-proven "tactical naivety" that prevented him from seeing The Answer. Now, presumably, Neil Cox and Marcus Gayle are The Answer. Until they're fit, back in the side and making mistakes, when Sean Dyche and Jerel Ifil will again be The Answer. And so on. Wayne Brown, on recent evidence, is only The Answer to questions that should never be asked in the first place. It's madness, but it doesn't matter. Utter bollocks or not, The Answer holds the key to Why The Manager Has Lost The Plot, and that's good enough for most.

Even if we came closer to surviving our not-defending-properly than in previous games, our not-defending-properly still cost us everything here. That is, we can completely discount United's second goal, scored at a point where we were desperately over-committed and vulnerable to counter-attacks. When you're one-nil down in injury time, these things happen. The point, naturally, is to avoid being one-nil down in injury time in the first place. By avoiding not-defending-properly.

Which we did, mostly. Indeed, Lenny Pidgeley only had one save to make, parrying Lester's shot after the lively forward had out-witted Sean Dyche on the edge of the box. But mostly isn't entirely, and there were still awful moments, as when Jerel Ifil was caught on the wrong-side of Gray by a simple through-ball and was lucky that the referee waved away appeals as the striker tumbled in the area. It wasn't a penalty, but it needn't have been anything at all if the defender had been concentrating. The same applies to Sean Dyche's lapse later on, when Lester's looping lob bounced comfortably and rather surprisingly wide.

And the same certainly applies to our sudden, unheralded inability to defend against a series of near-post corners as half-time approached. A dink, a flick and complete mayhem. Simple, easy to repeat, and utterly disastrous. From one, Jerel Ifil headed unknowingly over his own crossbar from a couple of yards; from the next, Lester swivelled amid the chaos to slash the ball into the roof of the net, scoring the decisive goal; from the next, the same player drove narrowly wide on the turn. True, we're not a tall team, but this was a United side without Wayne Allison and the like; true, the set pieces were delivered consistently well, but they were hardly revolutionary in design. Really, we can do better than allow teams to deliver the ball into the depths of our six yard box and then panic when it arrives. Or we can't, apparently.

Distressingly, and as tends to happen, the not-defending-properly wiped out everything else in the first half. And while that everything else could hardly be described in Peter-Drury-cooing-over-Arsenal fashion, it wasn't that bad. Not really. Somehow, we retain a little bit of spirit about us, even if it evaporates quickly as soon as the-defending-thing happens. A bit of spirit that might amount to something more tangible and valuable, if we could take one of those very occasional chances before the-defending-thing appears. Might. If. Sigh.

The main if of the afternoon fell to Scott Fitzgerald, played through by Heidar Helguson, who stabbed goalwards as Kenny advanced and was foiled by the keeper's left boot. To be fair to Scott Fitzgerald - and it'd be easy to be unfair, given that so many are rather over-fair in order to deny any rhyme or reason behind the manager's selections - it was a decent finish and a fine save, but it was still a huge and regrettable moment in the game. Beyond that, a scattering of half-chances, to Neal Ardley, heading wide from a very presentable Paul Mayo cross, and to the new left-back himself, driving a well-struck half-volley into the keeper's chest from twenty-five yards. There was plenty of mess too, as you'd expect...but as Heidar Helguson headed at the keeper from Neal Ardley's lofted cross, we were building momentum towards the interval, rousing the crowd, lifting our heads. The-defending-thing does know how to pick its moments....

And so it continued, for a while. The second half might've begun well, had the referee bothered to notice Robert Page holding Scott Fitzgerald as the two contested Micah Hyde's cross and then, just to be absolutely sure, holding him again as Paul Devlin returned the ball across goal. He didn't bother to notice. Then again, it might've begun abysmally as the-defending-thing manifested itself in Jerel Ifil taking a wild and, thankfully, inaccurate swing at an escaping forward, Lloyd Doyley rescuing things with a vital header, and Sean Dyche unrescuing things by booting wildly into the Vic Road end. This is not a defence that you'd ask to feed your cat while you were on holiday. Not without invalidating your contents insurance, anyway.

Finally, and inevitably, the general bitterness came to the boil. That Lee Cook's introduction was the cue for all manner of mouth-foaming is perhaps surprising. But it was Scott Fitzgerald's withdrawal too, and not Neal Ardley's, and that's the key. While it has to be said that I wasn't entirely convinced by the decision, it also has to be said that if you have to pick a player to remove from the pitch, it's far from unreasonable to pick the one who hasn't touched the ball for fifteen minutes. Still, it doesn't matter. Reasonable,'s all irrelevant when you can howl at the manager for not sharing your prejudices and, in one case, openly confront those around you who might be of a different opinion. Sing hallelujah for mob rule....

From there on, the fractiousness only increased. Sure, some people were marginally appeased by the welcome return of Danny Webber and the departure of Lloyd Doyley, who'd had a solid game before our growing monopoly on possession began to expose his offensive nerves. (Those were generally people who'd have angrily removed both Ardley and Doyley, leaving us with only their on-pitch representative, the ill-tempered Paul Devlin, to occupy the entire right-hand side...but it doesn't matter.) And the switch to 4-4-2 seemed to give us a bit more cohesion. But the whole thing was teetering on the brink, desperation both driving an attempted revival and causing it to disintegrate at the same time.

Had we scored, it's hard to imagine how we wouldn't have steamrollered our way to victory. The momentum was with us, after all, if we could only have harnessed it in some positive, useful way. We can't score, though. Even with Robert Page diving to meet Lee Cook's fine cross under pressure from Heidar Helguson, the header flicking his own crossbar on its way to safety. Even with Gavin Mahon's header from the corner, deflected wide by a defender's thigh. Even, with the last few frantic kicks of injury time, with Paul Mayo's blasted free kick that Kenny punched over, and with the corner and the same player's header into the side netting. We can't score. We can't defend. It's not a good combination, really.

The hope that was born with the announcement of five minutes of injury time was soon ended by Gray's close-range finish after McLeod had broken away and beaten Lenny Pidgeley and Sean Dyche with his cross. Which, as previously noted, is the kind of largely blameless thing that happens often in similar circumstances, and that we've occasionally celebrated ourselves in the past...although it seems like a long time ago, granted. All over bar the recriminations, and that Mayo set piece.

Besides, we were an undisciplined rabble by that point, no matter how much passion and commitment we were putting into the game. Give me the clear-headed common sense of a Neal Ardley or a Gavin Mahon, even on a dreadful off-day such as this, in preference to the red-misted lunacy of Heidar Helguson's stray elbow on Morgan, for which he was somewhat curiously only booked after the referee had broken up the resulting Devlin-fuelled scraps and consulted with both linesman. Or instead of petulant, shabby confrontation of Paul Devlin, looking for a fight with anyone and everyone when the team badly needed his creative input. Or the enraged howling at Page for daring to intervene on Helguson's behalf, or the outrage at Kenny for daring to celebrate the second goal.

And did you wonder, perhaps, while all of this was going on...quietly, of course...just to yourself, not daring to say it aloud...while the players were losing the plot in response to the supporters losing the plot...while people fought over their favourites and their favourites fought over their own frustrations...did you wonder whether, as he stood and watched it all from the touchline, Ray Lewington might not have been alone in retaining some kind of focus, some kind of level-headed perspective, some kind of sense...? And some kind of hope...? That's not actually what anyone wants, though, is it...?

And then did you think...with an inward sigh, a rather sad inward you realised that there's no way even to begin a rational argument amid the deafening clamour, let alone win that argument...and as you read the first shouty, belligerent e-mail about tactical sodding naivety in your mind's eye and began constructing your attempt at a well-reasoned reply, before remembering that nobody really cares about the details as long as certain players are on the pitch and certain other players are in the dustbin and this essentially capable, dependable, astute, square-peg-in-square-hole manager is replaced by some so-far-unknown, unaffordable candidate...and you thought, with that sigh of resignation...

It doesn't matter.