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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 17/09/05, 3.00pm
Sheffield United
Sucking lemons
By Ian Grant

Be warned: extremely pompous, holier-than-twattish-right-backs-with-daft-haircuts-and-RADA-training, halo-polishing, follow-the-path-of-righteousness, still-rather-bad-tempered-even-twenty-four-hours-later rhetoric follows. You'd expect nothing less, I hope.

It's been ages since I last wrote; an awful lot's happened, here and elsewhere. I'll tell you my favourite thing, though, because it's relevant. And because it was great.

The Ashes, obviously. (Matt, click here now.) The last day of the last Test, late on. Finally, after an epic, draining summer, the result appears to be decided, and only an unprecedented miracle can save Australia from defeat and halt the party that's very tentatively starting to kick off. Brett Lee's bowling. Very, very fast. Like everyone, he knows that this is it, and the deeply wounded pride is evident in a savage, snarling expression that contorts his features as he delivers the ball.

For fifteen or twenty minutes, he just lets rip. Perhaps it's one last attempt to produce that miracle, perhaps it's just a release of pure frustration, disappointment and anger. Most likely, it's both. Whatever the motivation, you wouldn't particularly want to be Ashley Giles, the target of most of these ferocious deliveries. Time and again, the ball slams into the pitch and rears up towards Giles' chin at ninety miles an hour; time and again, he just about manages to get out of the way in time.

It's an evil spell of bowling. Almost vengeful in its intensity. During it, Giles reaches his fifty, an understated but vital part of the final effort to cross the finishing line. And Brett Lee stops being frightening for a moment to shake his hand by way of congratulation.

So, please, don't tell me that there's no room for sportsmanship in the modern age. For behaving like a decent human being. Don't try to argue that being competitive means buying into the by-any-means-necessary school of trampling over anyone who gets in your way in order to achieve your own personal goals. Don't tell me - because even though I know that it's probably true, I really don't want to hear it - that football belongs to the Rob Kozluks of this world.

In the end, it's about respect. Of course, respect for your fellow professionals is part of that...but let's not go too far down that road, for it's precisely that protective, clique-ish mentality which creates the absurdity of a sport in which blatant cheating is euphemistically described as "going down a bit easily", and saying otherwise is potentially cause for a disrepute charge from the governing body. (Really, even Jonathan Swift couldn't have made some of this stuff up.) No, it's about respect for the game, for the sport that provides you with a very comfortable living simply because you turned out to be quite good at it when you were twelve.

Abuse that, and you should expect no sympathy whatsoever if it bites back at you some time. If, to pick an entirely random example, the opposition centre half that you didn't manage to get sent off decides to kick you six feet up in the air in retribution. That might result in a horrible, career-threatening injury, I suppose. As a level-headed, liberal-minded person, that's a moral question that I'd have to debate at some considerable length...before deciding that it's your bloody problem, not mine. Football's full of self-centred, arrogant little cowards like you, and one less would be one step in the right direction. One more wage to go to someone who'd actually value the game as well as the pay cheque.

Damn right, then, that this left a very bitter taste in the mouth. There's never anything pleasant about losing a two goal lead; hell, there's rarely anything too lovely about losing, full stop. But you can live with it, generally. This would've been a very different report if we'd just skipped the sixty-seventh minute and got on with it, succumbing to a rather flattering comeback that cancelled out our own rather flattering lead. Neil Warnock's sides have a certain reputation for unreconstructed physical force, for a distinctive, shall we say, WayneAllisonness; that's all part of the game that we love. You'd take that on the chin, without complaint. Given the chance.

Yes, given the chance. Instead, you rather hope that this serves as fuel to our slightly fading fire...because the loss of Marlon King to an early hamstring injury and the suspension for Malky Mackay, added to existing injury problems, represents a very stern test of the depth of our squad. Perhaps, if we're looking for a silver lining, this little vendetta might just keep us going through all of that. There's no harm in a sense of injustice, as long as you channel it properly. Just don't let it fester.

So, the next couple of weeks will be fascinating, and potentially pivotal. Much of this was fascinating too...which is to say that the football wasn't terribly good, but it intrigued throughout. No repeat of the glorious attacking play that swept us all off our feet on Tuesday night, then. That's fine - we surely know this division well enough to realise that you can't play like that every week - but one wonders how easily Adrian Boothroyd will produce the variation that he, quite rightly, sees as being key. Thus far, Plan B isn't entirely convincing, even if it nearly saw us through to a tremendous result here.

The problem is that Marlon King's rather wonderful. There are many worse problems to have, clearly. Nevertheless, for all that the goals have been spread around, it's hard to ignore the fact that he's at the heart of so much that's good: he's made the revolution possible and, without him, you suspect that we'll have to rely upon a more gradual, solid, patient evolution. It was a massive blow, then, to see him limping around the touchline after quarter of an hour, and our football, which had conjured up a half-chance for a rather excitable and inaccurate Ashley Young, was never as sharp or as penetrative thereafter. Not a coincidence.

It had been a fairly tentative opening, in which the most telling moment, with hindsight, was Kozluk's absurd over-reaction to being tackled by - wait for it - Anthony McNamee. On Tuesday, this was the moment when we started to take Norwich apart, having spent a little while sizing them up. Now, this was the moment when our centre forward was heading for the dressing room and, our concentration lost for an instant, their key striker was bombing towards the goal with defenders in his wake; mercifully, Jordan Stewart recovered that situation with a fine saving tackle as Kabba reached the penalty area.

For a while, we just needed to stay in the game. That we did so is extremely encouraging: there's a steel to this side right now, and that's something that'll be called upon whenever the more flamboyant stuff fails. In midfield, Carl Fletcher and Matthew Spring immediately formed an impressive partnership, strong in the tackle with a controlled, disciplined work ethic. It wasn't about possession, because games against Sheffield United never are. It was about the simple, fundamental stuff: stop them, then get it forward. Not pretty, but it meant that a dicey period resulted only in a couple of genuine frights: from a wide free kick, Ben Foster pulled off a remarkable close-range save with his legs, regardless of the fact that Kabba had been flagged offside as he loitered unmarked at the far post; Ifill nipped past a challenge inside the box and drove low at the keeper shortly afterwards.

Really, there wasn't much to justify the pre-match excitement. Lots of industry, plenty of hard work and graft and determination; for those of us still acclimatising, this was reassuringly dreary Second Division fare. As inconsequential half-chances came and went, while the Rookery struggled to maintain its fervour and our set piece takers continually failed to clear the first defender, you'd have happily put your mortgage on it being nil-nil at half-time. And you'd have been content enough with that, in the circumstances.

Instead, we scored. For a moment, it appeared as if the first goal might be another product of the new era's confident swagger, as Lloyd Doyley - who has received far fewer headlines than Ashley Young, but has blossomed just as much in the last couple of months - went on one of those splendidly unpredictable, careering runs, following the ball intently with furrowed brow as if trying to recapture an escaping pig, and finished by neatly supplying Young on the right of the penalty area. The pull-back was perfect, but Darius Henderson's clumsy finish was anything but...and it appeared that we'd blown our best chance of the opening forty-five. Until, that is, we finally got one of those set pieces right, and Sheffield United got their defending all wrong, and Henderson climbed to meet Anthony McNamee's awkwardly bouncing corner at the far post and nod it past the defender on the line.

One-nil, and reward for our determination as much as anything else. We weren't having things our own way, by any means, but we were getting on with it regardless. If you do that, you stand a chance of nicking something from a corner, and thereby winning the games that nobody'll remember when May arrives.

As if to prove the point, the second goal turned up from nowhere within a few minutes of the re-start. Just the most comprehensively rubbish defending that you'll ever see, three of them holding a committee meeting over who'd take responsibility for dealing with one of Ben Foster's massive clearances, while Paddy Kenny left them all to it and retreated onto his goal line to watch and Darius Henderson wandered around with tea and biscuits. By the time that the ball had reached the penalty spot, the meeting had broken up in some disarray, leaving Henderson with the simple task of prodding a finish past the keeper. One wondered whether he's ever scored a more pathetic goal, at the same time as rejoicing at seeing such hopeless nonsense from Warnock's bruisers.

It should've ended there. Might've, if Ashley Young had been a bit more composed in applying the finish to another of those Lloyd Doyley runs; his acrobatic effort was spectacular, but he had time to do better and thus to secure the three points. We were to regret that, for Sheffield United weren't slow in reminding us of the reasons for their success thus far: Jagielka's goal was superbly taken, getting across a defender to meet Kozluk's cross and smacking a mighty header past Foster to reduce the deficit. We hadn't really deserved the two-goal lead...but, having achieved it, you couldn't see how our opponents were going to wrestle it away from us, given that they'd created relatively little until now. Suddenly, the result didn't seem quite so certain.

In truth, the final thirty-five minutes was no more deserving of a three-nil defeat than the preceding period had warranted a two-nil victory. A deceptively undramatic game, given its contents. So, we'd survived ten minutes without any particular problems, before we allowed Ifill to wander across the southern regions of our midfield and smack a drive past Ben Foster from twenty yards. It went terribly close to the keeper, it has to be said. It also has to be said that he really belted it. And it also has to be said that I'm still not entirely convinced about Foster, who seems a bit, well, Geraint Jones, if you know what I mean.

That should've left us only with the search for the winner, on both sides. Instead, we had Rob Kozluk's grand performance, and the bitter taste of being cheated. It's simple enough, really: the jostling between Malky Mackay and Kozluk as Ashley Young lined up a free kick was innocuous enough - a shove in the back, a flick of the heel, nothing that'd cause the barest whimper from a small child, let alone a grown man wearing shinpads - until the Sheffield United player decided to seize the moment. He did so by collapsing to the ground in a spectacular display of pain, clutching first his knee and then, the knee being insufficiently life-threatening, holding his face. For about two minutes. Until the referee had dismissed Mackay for that flicked heel, at which point he miraculously recovered and was bouncing around on the goalline by the time that the free kick was eventually taken.

See above, then. The crucial issue, too long ignored, is that football provides diplomatic immunity for these wretches. At worst, you'll get a booking for "simulation" (another of those Swiftian euphemisms); at best, you'll succeed in whatever advantage you're trying to gain. No other punishment is possible, even retrospectively. So, by the letter of the law, Malky Mackay was guilty of "violent conduct", regardless of whether that alleged violence actually caused his opponent any physical harm or even held the threat of physical harm. By the letter of the law, if Adrian Boothroyd commented upon the absurdity of that situation, he'd be bringing the game into disrepute. And Rob Kozluk? Nothing doing. Aside from a few angry fans, nobody cares about him. He got booked - for what, it's impossible to say - but nobody within the game will condemn him, nobody'll have a quiet word, nobody'll suggest that holding your face when you've been lightly tapped on the lower shin might be a fundamentally pathetic way to conduct yourself in a public arena. It's down to his own conscience. Yeah, I'm not holding my breath either....

We kept our discipline, just about. For a while, it was touch and go, and the referee might've taken a sterner view of Henderson's flailing arm, flattening Montgomery against the turf. You just didn't know any more, though...and seeing Kabba prostrate in midfield for some reason, unknown to fans and officials alike, only raised the blood pressure still further. It wasn't until Clarke Carlisle took it upon himself to collar Kozluk and unceremoniously clout him up in the air, earning himself the most worthwhile booking of the season, that all the anger and frustration had some kind of release. That got a standing ovation from three sides of Vicarage Road. But the points had already gone.

They went with an absurd goal. As the ball criss-crossed the penalty area, there was no-one - a big, shouty Scotsman, say - to take decisive action; instead, it just kept whizzing hither and thither, hither and thither, until a vaguely goalward header was helped into the net by Carlisle's scrambled attempt at a clearance. The away end went ballistic. The home end sucked lemons. It very nearly got worse, as Matthew Spring came perilously close to turning the ball past his keeper again, only Ben Foster's quick reactions preventing disaster. And for all our huff and puff, we hadn't conjured up any particularly convincing attacking football since the United revival had begun, and couldn't do so now; Jordan Stewart smashed in a drive from a Doyley long throw in the last five minutes, but the touch from Kenny's waving hand was probably unnecessary.

And so it ended with general rancour and disarray. With Neil Warnock cheekily signalling the score to the home fans...which is fair enough, really, given that we'd cheekily asked him for it when we were ahead. With a generous farewell from Danny Webber; much more generous, anyway, than his reception from some parts of the Rookery. With applause for the team effort, yet again. With a cascade of abuse for you-know-who, which'll probably only inflate his ego.

And with the moral of the story. That if you're going to get sent off anyway, Malky, you really might as well chin the little f***er.