In the week that both management and playing staff at Sheffield United praised the influence Gary Speed has had on their recent upturn in form, it was predictably the United captain who proved the defining figure as the play-off hopefuls produced yet another victory, their 8th in the last 10 games, against 4th-placed Bristol City. The 38-year old midfielder, standing in as skipper in Chris Morgan’s absence, scored both goals and was a tower of strength and consistency through the game, even when a reshuffle forced him to play at centre-back alongside Matthew Kilgallon.
United’s upheaval in fortunes and results has catapulted them into genuine contention for a top-six berth when the season draws to a climax next Sunday and, although overhauling Ipswich Town, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Crystal Palace with one match to go in the Championship calendar appears to be a improbable task on the surface, it is far from impossible. United travel to Southampton knowing a victory, combined with favourable results elsewhere, could see them in with an unexpected chance of an instant return to the top-flight of English football.
Undoubtedly, the catalyst for the upheaval has been James Beattie and, after receiving the Supporter’s Club Player of the Year award before kick off, the near-30,000 were relishing the opportunity to see the former Everton marksman add to his 22-goal tally for the season. These hopes were dashed however when Beattie left the fray after United’s first attack on 4 minutes – Kevin Blackwell introducing Rob Hulse as Beattie departed with what looked like a calf strain. Blackwell, who revealed that Beattie, along with fellow injury victims Ugo Ehiogu and Lee Martin faces a battle against time to be fit for Sunday, said: “Beattie felt his calf in the warm-up and was in trouble as soon as he made his first sprint in the game”.
Hulse wasted little time displaying his undoubted aerial prowess, knocking down a free kick into the path of Tonge on 13 minutes. City ‘keeper Adriano Basso had to be quick to pounce on the loose ball and prevent Tonge from opening the scoring. At the other end, Adebola received the ball and turned past Ehiogu on the edge of the box, before falling to ground with what appeared to be minimal contact. Referee Mark Halsey had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot and Michael McIndoe stepped up to smash the ball past the dive of Paddy Kenny, straight down the middle of the goal. Eyes on the Bramall Lane crowd were divided between events on the pitch and the electronic scoreboard, which showed updates from not only Hull v Crystal Palace but also Leicester vs Wednesday – matches important for the Unitedites, but for very different reasons.
Giving away the penalty proved to be Ehiogu’s last involvement in the game and, with Morgan suspended for the journey south, Blackwell could be provided with a dilemma as to who will partner Matt Kilgallon against The Saints. Thinking closer to home, however, his solution was to introduce Lee Martin after a long injury lay off and play Speed at centre-half. The impressive Stephen Quinn was moved inside to partner Tonge, but the Irishman undoubtedly does not possess the nous and experience that Speed oozes and this began to show as United lost their shape.
One person not affected by the reshuffle though was the man himself, Speed. He rose highest to head home an exquisite Tonge corner, despite the best efforts of Noble on the line. Just before the interval however Kenny’s goal suffered another scare – the excellent Nick Carle saw his initial effort blocked by Quinn, before firing a 20-yarder through a crowded penalty area, but Kenny was equal to the task.
United reappeared for the second half without Lee Martin, who suffered ankle ligament damage in a tackle by Orr early after his introduction, and another defensive reshuffle was in order. Player of the Year joint runner-up Derek Geary replaced the on-loan Manchester United winger, as John Halls moved to the centre of defence, allowing Speed to take up a more customary role in the engine-room. Former Bristol City winger David Cotterill, inspired from abuse from the travelling supporters, attacked Orr and, after his effort was saved by Basso, Hulse put the follow up over the crossbar when it seemed easier to score. Hulse, victim of a leg-break last season, doesn’t yet appear either match-fit or match-sharp, but showed brief glimpses of the hold-up play that was a successful part of almost keeping United in the Premier League last season. But, much the same as United’s season, he had the ability to delight and frustrate in equal measure.
United’s pressure in the second-half began to tell and ten minutes after the restart, they were ahead. McIndoe was adjudged to have handled by the assistant referee who alerted Halsey, and in the absence of Beattie, Speed stepped up to the penalty spot and stroked the ball past Basso with his left foot. The goal, combined with continuous hopeful developments from the KC Stadium, gave United hope again, and so often the club shines against the odds. The game wasn’t won, however, by any stretch of the imagination and Gary Johnson’s side started to show that their league position is no fluke. The 3,000 City supporters thought they had drawn level when McIndoe turned home Trundle’s cross, only for an assistant referee’s flag to disallow the goal. One particular fan was ejected for his celebrations of the ‘equaliser’. The impressive Australian Carle having first a shot parried by Kenny and then a header kept out by the goalkeeper, with help from Kilgallon on the line.
Late pressure came from a surge of high balls into the United box and Speed was forced to clear one such attack with a perfectly-executed bicycle kick. Despite the home side’s best efforts the ball kept coming back though, until Cotterill spurned a glorious chance to remove all lingering doubts about the outcome. Billy Sharp showed rare strength, pace and aggression to beat his man to the ball in his own half, carried the ball unopposed into City’s penalty area before feeding the Welshman inside the 18 yard area. Cotterill then shot straight at Basso, and the resulting scramble resulted in a corner. The United players attempted to waste some seconds by holding the ball in the corner before Halsey’s whistle, combined with confirmed losses for Crystal Palace and Watford, left four sides of Bramall Lane dreaming and wondering – what if?
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