Whatever spin some may put on it, it was another game where the performance was poorer than the result itself. There was some improvement but nothing to get excited about and the crowd reaction of near silence for the entire 90 minutes and morgue-like atmosphere made the whole experience highly depressing. City were punchless, clueless and so lacking in confidence that they are a pale imitation of what they were. Some fans swear they saw some positives and could see light at the end of the tunnel but, if it is, it looks longer than the Severn Tunnel based on this showing.
The damning facts are Sheffield United had more shots on goal in the opening 40 seconds than City had in the entire match because we didn't manage one meaningful effort. The Blades won as many corners (three) in the opening 2 minutes as we managed in the whole 90. Our midfielders never took on or went past any opposing player (not helped when your most attacking midfielder is the most withdrawn one), they never sent a single through ball and our supposed wide midfielders managed just one cross each in the whole game. Our only decent performers at home were our two full-backs, Weston and Vidmar. How anybody can take encouragement from the carcass of that showing is beyond me but I salute their optimism.
FA Cup ties should be about blood, thunder and passion but Lennie and his players were far too cautious, negative and safety first. Not for the first time in this dismal run, I couldn't agree at all with Lennie's selections, tactics and attitude and having had the vote of confidence from Sam Hammam this week (remember how he made exactly the same remarks when Corky was in trouble), there is no doubt he will come under immense pressure if he fails to get results in league games against Rotherham and Bradford in the next fortnight. The ‘second honeymoon’ he won from fans after winning the play-offs and making a sensational start to the season is well and truly over.
He got us a little better organised and tighter, not much though, but the lack of passion, belief and confidence is staggering. The players look haunted and in fear. They certainly aren't expressing themselves, they lack enthusiasm, and they aren’t enjoying themselves. It wasn’t that we never looked winning, we never looked liked we wanted to win today
Was that a game-plan than keeping things sterile and pray for a break? If City go down fighting, having given their all and their best, none of us complain. When we lose playing like this, it is wholly unsatisfying. I walked away feeling numb and empty and had plenty of company.
Right, got that off my chest and now for the match. I still love the F.A. Cup. A home tie with Sheffield United in the Third Round would have been glamorous maybe as recently as a year ago. But playing Sheffield United now after we’ve lost four on the trot with no natural width and a suicidal defence who can’t even get the basics right with a midday start meaning no decent drink first is anything but glamorous. Only 10,025 made the effort, that disappointed some but it was better than I expected.
The game was our 4th successive lunchtime kick-off (not even Man United or Arsenal have to tolerate that), this time on police advice. This followed problems at Brammall Lane not because of City fans causing trouble but because police delayed coaches getting to the ground until long after kick-off and they were fighting with Sheffield fans. Only 400 bothered to travel down from South Yorkshire and it‘s doubtful whether too many more would have bothered had it been at 3pm. The league game in two months however which will be high profile and with a much greater visiting support kick-off at 5:35pm for Sky tv. Go figure the wisdom behind decision making like this. Fools.
The weather was cold and grey in keeping with City’s performance. Both sides lined up around the centre-circle for one minute silence in memory of Gil Reece, a Blades legend who only played for his hometown Bluebirds at the very end off his career but who became as well known around the City for his plumbing business and running a Cathedral Road B&B before his ill health starting taking its toll. The silence was impeccably observed, so well observed in fact that it carried on the 90 minutes of actions that was to follow.
After an appalling display at Watford, a few changes were expected but Lennie has few options and no matter what he says about being too loyal to some players, he’s never going to stop doing it. There was one change only - the rested Earnie for Campbell - and 4-42 with Margetson, Weston-Gabbidon-Prior-Vidmar, Langley-Kavanagh-Boland-Whalley, Thorne-Earnie.
United’s side were Kenny, Kozluk-Morgan-Page-Jagielka, Tonge-Montgomery-McCall-Lester, Sturridge-Ward. Paddy Kenny and Chris Morgan, the latter returning from a lengthy injury absence, have both turned over Cardiff before whilst at Bury and Barnsley. Anyone remember Morgan’s two headers past a static Neil Alexander at Oakwell for his first goals in nearly 150 games? Rob Page, the Rhondda boy, needed no introduction but Dean Sturridge did having signed for the Blades from Wolves 48 hours earlier. Their midfield is bossed by Stuart McCall, 5 months away from his 40th birthday, providing the sort of experience and know-how sorely lacking in City at present.
It City want to start getting faults right, a priority must be starting quickly but, yet again, our opponents took the game to us from the opening action, all too familiar. Martin Margetson made a fantastic reaction save on 40 seconds turning a close range shot over the bar after we were cut open on the left and a left-sided cross along the floor that passed our centre-halves. The following 80 seconds saw City scramble three corners away.
After such a poor start, Cardiff managed to wake a little and the game settled. Thorney nearly finding Earnie twice with through balls but unable to make any impression in the final third. Vidmar was forging ahead on the left but his distribution was finding ball boys more than blue-shirted colleagues and Weston was trying to stir the game - and Richard Langley - into life on the right. Boland being Boland got a needless yellow card with a frustrated-type challenge from behind on a Sheffield defender in the middle of nowhere 70 yards from City’s goal. Langley had a real stinker, every time he had the ball, he couldn’t wait to give it to someone else. He never took on a defender all afternoon, never made an incisive run and never looked as if he wanted to get over-involved.
I hope Langley and the rest of our midfield took a close look at Sheffield’s Jack Lester who popped up everywhere in and around our penalty area in a way that no City midfielder dared to attempt. In fact, Lester not only had and missed the chances to have won the game by half-time but he managed to fluff a hat-trick of sitters. Still, he got there, none of ours did.
20 minutes, Lester spread the ball to Sturridge on the left, his low ball evaded Margetson diving at the near post but Lester somehow diverted the ball wide from 8 yards with the goal gaping in front of him. Just one minute later, he took the ball at the far right post, juggled around City players and his shot back across goal went wide when it looked harder to do that than hit the target. And a minute later again, he shot from an identical position but this time screwed it wide of the near post.
To their credit, City tried to make a game of it but our only moments of excitement were through the desire and forcefulness of Vidmar and Weston storming forward to start attacks, get balls in and push Sheffield back. Both had our only real first half efforts at goal. Vidmar flashed a near post header wide, he maybe should have hit the target, meeting an inswinging touchline Kav free-kick whilst Weston burst through Sheffield defenders before shooting like a defender and blazing wide which frustrated Earnie who had got into space across goal.
Sheffield were feeling the pressure slightly at this stage, Sturridge and Page were booked in quick succession for poor challenges on Gabbidon and the anonymous Whalley who again failed to make any telling contribution to the game, but got to half-time with considerable ease and hardly having to work up a sweat with City showing no real desire to press, challenge and pressure. For those clinging to positives and hope, this was one of them.
We have got to quicken up, close down players and make things happen but the players are now so cautious, you just can’t see it happening. Whilst Sheffield’s midfield and forwards worked hard to close us down, limit our attempts to play and harass us, we gave them time and allowed them to pass it around. Kav was too deep to stop it, Boland was doing plenty of running but he was hardly ably supported. Another sure sign of problems was that Sheffield’s defence didn’t particularly impress me. On the few occasions we got near them, they tended to hack the ball away and, a couple of times, straight into the air but we were never there to win the loose balls at any time. Far too ponderous, never enough urgency. The problems are so obvious, it just staggers me why we are seeing the same things game after game at the moment.
Half-time: CITY 0 SHEFF UTD 0
City came out second half and did show a little more confidence in their work and spent more time in the opposing half. Again, the outlets were Weston and Vidmar, they was little creativity apart from this pair. Weston hit an effort at goal but Kenny, getting some abuse for his belly from the Grange End, had a routine pick up. Vidmar excited the crowd with one fantastic 70 yard burst which left Sheffield players trailing, his cut back low ball just went behind Thorney. A couple of minute later, he did it again. He got stronger as the game progressed and certainly looked good.
Just after the hour, Neil Warnock made the sort of bold substitution selections Lennie Lawrence would never contemplate in a million years. He removed both strikers and replaced them with another pair in a bold attempt to win the game at the first time of asking. Paul Peschisolido and Wayne Allison replaced Ward and Sturridge. Lennie did however counter-act it three minutes later by introducing Alan Lee for the very disappointing Earnie. The little fella was shackled and had no service but never got involved in the game and never produced anything on the ball.
Lee came onto a rapturous ovation, some in the crowd must have been woken from the nap, and made an instant impact by winning a corner with his first involvement in the game as he moved tow defenders out of the way and the goal temporarily opened for Whalley to shoot but he delayed for a fraction, enough to see his effort deflected behind. I don’t think we’d have ever have thought it but Lee and Thorne may well be our starting pair next game and, if they are, nobody can really complain. Earnie’s rest at Watford hardly livened him up for today.
You couldn’t really see a goal coming and I’m sure many in the ground were starting to envisage a replay next week when, out of the blue, we totally cocked it up again. The game had a few similarities to the Walsall home game on Boxing Day as it was but the timing and style of the visitors’ goal was almost a carbon copy. The goal was against the run of play although we never worried the Blades at all with our possession and territory, there was nothing threatening to it.
With 15 minutes remaining, Montgomery swept the ball wide to Tonge. He stepped by Weston on the touchline and launched a wicked far post high, hanging ball. Lennie was so disappointed by Weston that he removed him from the game immediately afterwards but Margetson, came, hesitated then stopped as the ball sailed over him then Danny Gabbidon failed to jump or make any sort of challenge allowing WAYNE ALLISON to unbelievably nod into goal unchallenged from 4 yards with utmost ease. Not naive defending, just novice, amateur and pathetic. I can’t feel sorry for our players when they do this to us game after game after game currently.
Andy Campbell and Gary Croft came on for the final 10 replacing Weston and Whalley. Croft made a good impression and fired over more crosses in his spell than our whole midfield managed all game and got a shot in too that Kenny took with ease. Campbell had two bites at the cherry to meet a Prior flick on after Spencer was thrown forward but missed them both. Vidmar tried a volley but it deflected into the air and then into Kenny’s arms as it came down.
Honest, Paul McCartney’s wife could have kept a clean sheet for Sheffield United ... even if she had forgotten to screw her false limb on! Stevie Wonder could have kept a clean sheet too. Final whistle brought some boos but they were borne of frustration. Losing 1-0 to Sheffield is hardly a disgrace but if we carry on like this, it’s hard to see any outcome to City games other than more losses and the occasional draw. We need luck but that alone ain’t going to do much for us. It’s up to Lennie and his players to produce far more, for better and far more effectively than this.