Wednesday 7 November 2018

Balls of Steel

I don't like Derby days. There I've said it. In fact I've said it before. Here's a link back to a piece I wrote 7 years ago. My view hasn't changed since and I doubt it ever will.

But this Derby Day is different. Well, maybe not that much different to the home fixture against Wednesday last season, but different from the norm that we have become accustomed to in my lifetime. We are no longer the underdog and, to be frank, I don't like it. 

It's been rare in my lifetime that United have been favourites going into a Derby match. Even last season, when we were above Wednesday going into the fixture at Hillsborough, we were still dismissed as cannon fodder by the S6 support. "The bubble will burst", they told us. "You are not good enough", they told us. "We are older, bigger, better", not that it helps much on the pitch. They underestimated the Dog & Duck, both in terms of quality of football and the unity of the team. 

Whatever they might say about 4-2 not being a massacre, the home side in a Derby fixture had not conceded 4 goals for the best part of a century. You would need to go back to the Wartime League in 1917 and 1918 when the Blades conceded 4 and 5 at home to Wednesday. 

Suddenly, the claims were about missing players, injuries, ignoring the fact that just one of their team cost as much as our entire eleven. However much they doth protest, it hurt.......a lot. So much so that come the return fixture at Bramall Lane a 0-0 draw was celebrated like a cup final triumph in the away end. They told us how disappointed we should feel, yet for me not losing in a Derby is a victory in itself. We ended the season having taken four points off Wednesday, who wouldn't be delighted with that? And if the boot were on the other foot, I doubt you would find many Wednesdayites who would disagree. 

Fourteen months on from that game at Hillsborough, the stakes are the same but the feeling is so different. A quick look at the Roy's Views website, which picks off the highlights and opinions posted on the opposition's internet forums, show us a very different mood across town. One where the psychological games how much greater. A snapshot of their views are below.

"Anything less than 4 will be like a lottery win. Poor Blades they’re in an awkward position lol”
“All the pressure is on United. Expected to lose by 3 or 4 goals on Friday. “
"If they don’t win by at 5 clear goals they’ll be bitterly disappointed."

"Win – win for us. They should win handsomely. Anything less would be a disappointment for them."

Whilst the facts are 3rd versus 17th, an opposition that have shipped 12 goals in 3 games and a fan base that is demanding the manager's removal and the reinstatement of key players. The facts also show a Blades side that I've taken 4 points from the last 12 and despite plenty of good football and strong possession stats, don't always make it count.

It is a cliche, but it has so often been the case; the form book does go out of the window. Just look at the two matches last season. Wednesday were expected to win at Hillsborough and we were expected to win at Bramall Lane. Neither happened. Going back to 1991-92, we had won two top flight games Wednesday were firm favourites when they visited the Lane and remained so when United visited Hillsborough. It meant nothing in either game.

I then read a tweet from fellow Blade, Darren Smith;

"If we don't win this by at least three it will be one of the most disappointing results in our recent history. Opportunities like this don't come along very often. We are playing decent stuff they are in disarray"

On first read I winced. I didn't like it. I could never be that bolshy about our chances. How can you be disappointed by a win? When challenged in a subsequent tweet, Darren admitted he could have chosen a better word than disappointed and I think that is right, but the more I thought about it, the more I understood the point he was trying to make. 

We are playing a team that will sit deep and try and contain, as they did at the Lane back in January. For them, it will be all about defend and hit us on the break. That night we failed to find that incisive move to deliver a goal. Find that on Friday (and relatively early in the game) and they have to come out. Weaknesses exposed, we could really go for the jugular and a result that puts to bed the day after Christmas thirty nine years ago. 

It could happen, but then again plenty of things could happen. I am just not going there expecting it. I doubt any Blades would make such rash predictions. A one goal win, with the ball rebounding of Billy's backside will do me fine I would even take a point and we move on to a less intense, but probably more testing game away at Rotherham. 

If you want me between 7:30 and 9:45 on Friday night, you will find me hunched in my seat in the middle of the Kop. Muscles wound tighter than a watch spring. Tenser than Joey Essex entered in a Spelling Bee. Twitching like the Pitsmoor Owl whenever a blue light passes his living room window. I can't say I will enjoy it, you would need balls of steel to sit/stand there and enjoy it all. know there is one scenario that would enable me to properly enjoy it, well some of it, at least whatever time is left after the fourth goes in. 18-1 with SkyBet, just saying.

Thursday 4 October 2018

Game by Game - 15

Game 15 – Blackburn Rovers (A), Championship – 0-2

The A666. The road of the devil. The road to hell. The road to Blackburn. Driving through Darwen into Blackburn is a bit like passing over and finding yourself in Hades. We were welcomed into Blackburn by the sight of a young mum in dressing gown pushing a child in her buggy up the street, at 5:45 pm. An interesting sight, yet this wasn't the oddest moment of the night and the welcome was never really warm.

A walk down Bolton Road to McDonalds was a bizarre fusion of sights and sounds. From the gaunt, pasty faced youths guarding the entrance to Ewood Park WMC (and the membership secretary at a small table inside) with a look that just said, "Don't think about it". To the youths outside the newsagents, "I'd sooner get beat up than do prison". There was a Blackburn fan whose main form of communication appeared to be whinnying like a horse.Then to cap it all there was the 10 year old in the McDonalds queue  who, after asking JB if he supported Blackburn and JB replying that he didn't, proceeded to tell him to "f@ck off then". 

The night soon got better. United started with a bang. Quite literally, as banger exploded in the away end and 2,000 Blades fans simultaneously crapped themselves. Once the eggy smell of firework and rectal expulsion had passed, United were on the front foot from the off. Most of the first half saw the Blades camped in the opposition half. I have never seen such an unambitious home side as Blackburn. Once the excellent Egan and Basham isolated Graham and Dack (and subsequently Brereton), any counter attacks were snuffed out.

I can't imagine watching my team set up like that at home and clearly Rovers fans feel the same way. We have had some low points and rogue owners, but for a team riding high on their return to the Championship, just 12,000 home fans rattling around three sides of the stadium was a poor show. A sign of being careful what you wish for in terms of owners and recognition that the very best of times can soon turn bad. The fact those there were largely silent, apart from the youth sporadically banging his drum (which did more for Blades fans song creativity than  theirs), was equally sobering. "Is this a library?" chanted the Blades fans, more like a morgue.

As has been the case recently United didn't convert superior play and possession into goals, although this can be put down to the Blackburn keeper rather than profligate finishing. Whilst there was still a tendency for players to look for a pass when a shot was seemingly on, it was the saves that Raya made from McGoldrick, Duff and Fleck that kept the score 0-0. Well, those saves and a good headed chance put over by O'Connell. At 66-1 for the first goal and 20-1 anytime, it would have been nice if you had got your head over it Jack 😁.

After a bright five minutes or so at the start of the second half, when United had a great shout for handball in the box, Blackburn eased there way into the game, switching formation to match us and gaining some territory. For ten minutes or so we were on the back foot and failing to retain possession. Wilder and Knill responded by pushing Basham into midfield and morphing into a 4-3-3 which enabled United to regain control and we finally took the lead. 

Duffy, cut inside from the right and passed inside to Fleck, who moved the ball out wide left to McGoldrick. Rovers defenders were tracking across but nowhere near the Blades players and McGoldrick crossed for Sharp to bundle home at the second attempt. From thereon, United reverted back to the usual formation and Blackburn never looked like getting back into the game. There lack of creativity and guile exemplified by utilising sub Mulgrew as a quarterback sweeper, firing long diagonals from behind the centre halves.

The introduction of Coutts brought one of the biggest cheers of the night and from the minute he stepped on the pitch it was like he had never been away. From the off he was full blooded in the tackle and shirked nothing. Always wanting the ball, his touch was superb. A series of intricate one-twos when he was tight on the touchline showed quick feet and mind. He always seems to create more time and space than you think he has and this was no different. "Coutts's touch is arousing me", said JB.

The second goal again came from an advancing Fleck laying the ball off to his left. This time Stevens hit a wonderful curling cross and Billy somehow had more space around him than a Rovers fan, allowing him to head the ball hard into the ground, bouncing up into the roof of the net from close range. If it wasn't game over before, it was now. Scores of Rovers supporters were streaming out of the ground when sub Washington should have buried a third, but he fired too close to the impressive Raya.

Away wins are seldom more emphatic, even if the scoreline doesn't fully reflect the dominance.

Three final thoughts:

Billy Reliable: You can score all the spectacular 30 yard goals you like, but a bundled goal from 5 yards counts for as much, if not more. Especially if it gives your team the win that the flashier goals sometimes do not. That is why there will always be a role for Billy in the Blades team and why he is second top scorer in the division. At half time, you could argue he had been our least effective player. As Luke Prest messaged at the time, "Never that arsed with Billy being quiet, he often is before banging one in". Or in this case two. Unless injured or knackered, he is undroppable right now. And with McGoldrick playing so well, it's a nice problem to have.

Perspective: Following my piece on The Entitled Fans, it is worth reflecting on where we are now: 

  • Joint top, third on goal difference.
  • Coutts is back.
  • We have seen more victories than fans of any other Championship club.
  • Coutts is back.
  • A point better off than at the same stage last season, when everyone said we had a great start.
  • Coutts is back.
  • We have a stronger matchday squad.
  • Coutts is back.
  • We've got Ollie Norwood....
  • Coutts is back.

TalkSport Singles: The journey home was a time of warm reflection on a great away win that dissolved into hysterics, as we turned over the radio to Talksport and heard them trailing their dating site -Talksport Singles. 

Is it a same sex dating site? 

How do they recruit women from such a male oriented listenership? 

Surely, you wouldn’t find any women registering unless they are a Single White Female looking for Single White Van Man? 

And why, unlike everything else on Talksport, is it not sponsored by Screwfix, surely a missed opportunity there?

Just who would advertise themselves there?

"Barry from Willesden, Man United fan, likes shouting at passing cars and owning pitbulls"

"Nigel from Goole, Second Hand Car Salesman. Likes: His women like his cars, cheap reliable and fast"

"Karl, Postman from Kidderminster. Reads The Mail, Delivers the mail"

"Brian from Harlesden. Likes Spurs, Phil Collins and Steak and Chips"

"Tommy from Doncaster. Likes:  Benidorm - for holidays and the telly programme. Dislikes: No... proper hates Germans."