Sunday, 21 November 2010

Sheffield United 3 Crystal Palace 2

Another extraordinary afternoon at Bramall Lane. Every time I part with money to watch Sheffield United, they produce a performance bereft of flair, imagination and confidence, usually get caught on the counter-attack, lose by the odd goal and get jeered off the park. Every time I get a press ticket for free, they find some lost never-say-die attitude, fight back when all seemed lost, salvage a result and are treated like infallible heroes.

Saturday’s match against Crystal Palace was the closest you will get to a relegation six-pointer at this stage of the season and, for manager Gary Speed in particular, it was a ‘must-win.’ Thankfully for him, the Blades delivered, although they didn’t exactly make it easy for themselves. Trailing 2-1 to 10- man Palace with five minutes remaining, I genuinely believed that, upon my return to the press lounge, there would be a statement saying that Speed had been relieved of his duties. But two goals in a crazy three minutes flipped this game on its head and Speed was saved.

It had been a surreal day – part of our coursework this term is to be allocated an area of South Yorkshire and find four stories there. I had been given Rotherham and, in the knowledge that my football this week was an evening kick-off, I duly set off there to have a nosy round. I didn’t find much in the way of leads, but I did out of curiosity have a wonder up to the old Millmoor ground, Rotherham United’s home until just a few years ago.

Its demise is sad. Though the ground is most definitely showing signs of age, it is a real old-fashioned arena with a certain charm and character preserved. The tall floodlight pylons stand out for miles and, although the place is under lock and key now, you could get occasional glimpses inside to see the rows of creaking wooden seats in the main stand. They didn’t look too different to the day they were first bolted in, all of which just adds to the allure of the place. Apparently the groundsman continued to religiously cut the grass for the first few months after the club re-located to the Don Valley Stadium – perhaps through force of habit or routine, perhaps through the hope, fading fast, that one day its terraces might be in full cry once again.

The place is so skewed in the home side’s favour. It must be one of the most intimidating places in the country for an away supporter. From the station, you must first walk through a never-ending sprawl of industrial estates, with every unit seemingly a budget version of Kwik-Fit complete with puddles of engine grease and stacks of balding tyres. The away turnstiles are situated at the bottom of a long, undulating alleyway enclosed by rusty steel walls and barbed wire on one side and vast scrap metal yards on the other. With a number of pubs at the top of the alley, it must have been the perfect place for an ambush in the bad old days. I strolled down, finding only a dead-end and a scary-looking man who appeared to have gained squatter’s rights to a Portakabin. At this point I decided to leave Rotherham.

Thankfully, Bramall Lane is still in tip-top condition and even the press box catering had improved. The meagre selection of sandwiches remained but was augmented by half-time pea soup and chicken curry, which was obviously greatly enjoyed by one of the Sky Sports commentators who looked familiar even if I couldn’t remember his name.

And those who tuned in were certainly rewarded. As is tradition, United gifted their opponents a head-start when Jean Calve nudged Neil Danns in the back and referee Anthony Taylor, unnecessarily, awarded a penalty, which Danns smashed home. Taylor recognised his error and quickly made amends, giving United a penalty of their own when Ched Evans was blocked off by Nathaniel Clyne. Richard Cresswell did the business. And things got even better for the home side when Owen Garvan was sent off for dissent. Garvan must have excelled himself because the official initially booked him, only to return seconds later and flash the red. It was a moment of stupidity and the game looked very much United’s for the taking.

But regulars at the Lane know full well this never happens and Palace re-took the lead in the second-half. Wilfried Zaha, who was a menace all game and had missed a good opening in the first-half, crossed for the excellent James Vaughan to head in. Palace then went into siege mentality and their Argentine goalkeeper Julian Speroni made a number of first-class saves, notably turning Mark Yeates’ half-volley onto the post. Eventually he was beaten though as Evans reacted quickest to turn in the rebound after his initial effort had come back off the bar. And just a minute later, Claude Davis, whose match had been hitherto faultless, clumsily fouled Adam Bogdanovic. The Maltese player fired home the game’s third penalty. And there was still time for the same player to be sent off in injury time. A remarkable game and a real boost for United.

Next Match: Likely to be at Hillsborough, either against Walsall in League One on Tuesday night or Northampton Town in the FA Cup second round on Saturday.

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