Blades Scrape Through

The Blades went through to the FA Cup third round eventually seeing off plucky League Two Torquay United on a difficult day at Bramall Lane. It was an afternoon where much of the focus was on paying tribute to the late Gary Speed who of course had represented United as a player, coach and manager towards the end of a long, illustrious and much respected career in the game.

The tributes beforehand were a moving reminder of Speed’s career and life and were given the respect and appreciation they deserved by everyone inside the Lane. United returned Richard Cresswell to the starting line up replacing Chris Porter in an otherwise unchanged side. Nick Montgomery was on the bench but there was still no place in the match day squad for James Beattie. Torquay would have been confident after their excellent recent form and a good win in the previous round at Chesterfield only 3 weeks ago.

Once the game started it seemed United were more affected than the visitors by the emotions pre game and the Gulls stormed into the lead. A foul from Doyle saw Nicholson’s free kick somehow find itself into the path of the unmarked HOWE who took a touch and scored all too easily. United were stunned whilst the visiting contingent at the Bramall Lane end probably could not believe it either as they celebrated wildly!

Morris then hit a long ranger wide and United were struggling to get into the game and losing many of the loose balls. When they did have the ball they often gave it away with the midfield in particular struggling to impose themselves on the game. Torquay were becoming more and more confident and Howe was the focal point of their attacks.

United did have some chances of their own as Maguire headed wide from a corner when he should have done better. Then Evans had a free kick that was saved spectacularly from Olejnik as the ball was heading into the top corner. Torquay still looked dangerous when going forward and had an excellent opportunity when Stevens went through but badly dragged his shot wide when in the clear.

Soon after they had an even better chance when Howe went through rounded Simonsen but then dithered with the goal at his mercy and he eventually pulled the ball back to Bodin whose shot was saved from Simonsen. Mansell was booked for a trip on McAllister that gave Evans another opportunity from a free kick and his low driven shot was tipped round the post again by Olejnik. United had been really poor in open play and the crowds frustrations were clear when the half time whistle went. They had been slow in their build up and wasteful in possession. Torquay had employed perfect tactics, getting an early goal and then playing well on the break but defending in numbers.

The second half saw Untied at least look more determined to press Torquay further back and pressed the Gulls back in the early stages. Oastler got tangled up with Evans but the referee waved play on despite appeals for a penalty from the crowd. Torquay were now packing the defence and often did not have a single player up front as they had resorted to just whacking it clear and then regrouping. United had a good opportunity when Doyle’s left footed shot was pushed away from Olejnik and then from the rebound Evans powerful shot hit the post and McAllister’s subsequent shot was blocked out. Morris crudely took out Quinn as he actually used his right foot for once to get away from his opponent but Williamson wasted another free kick. Cresswell then had an effort blocked from close range and United were putting pressure on but the game was ebbing away. Manager Wilson opted to make changes putting on McDonald for McAllister and then a more strange one Jean Francois for Williams. McDonald looked to get involved and threaded a ball through that just evaded Evans.

The equaliser finally came on 68 minutes when Quinn and Williamson fed Lowton who whipped in an inviting cross that was sliced into his own net from ELLIS. Immediately after the kick off United scored again. Torquay squandered possession and EVANS picked up a loose ball around 30 yards from goal. As the defence backed off the striker advanced further before firing a powerful low effort into the corner. The Welsh striker raced towards the dugout and put his shirt over his head to reveal a tribute to his former club and national manager Speed. As the United players spoke to the referee he seemed to realise the sentiment of the message and sensibly did not book the United player as the rules normally dictate to be the norm. The game had suddenly been turned on its head inside 2 minutes.

United now were in control and gaps were opening up all over the field. Atieno came on for Morris as the visitors tried to get a foothold back in the game but it was one way traffic now. Evans had got a real scent and had another effort blocked out before he was able to get a third goal due to an awful goalkeeping mistake. Olejnik hit his kick out straight to the feet of EVANS and he was one on one with the keeper. He kept his cool and stroked the ball home to effectively seal the tie.

Porter came on for Cresswell and then McDonald was booked for a trip which saw a free kick come to nothing for the Gulls. However with the additional 4 minutes of stoppage time almost up some sloppy defending was punished by Torquay as Howe played in STEVENS on left hand side and he drove him past Simonsen. The kick off was taken but the referee blew for full time straight after.

United – It was far from a convincing performance and like last week United made real heavy weather of poor opposition. They started the game sluggishly and lost loose balls, tackles and individual battles. The early goal came due to a daft foul and then awful marking/concentration. After this whilst we controlled the ball a lot of the time and the game the build up was slow and pretty clueless. If Doyle or McAllister did not give the ball away then it was usually Quinn or Williamson hitting a poor cross into the first man or the defence passing it around for a while, seeing no options then eventually someone hitting a long punt up front to no one. We looked like we did not know how to break them down and apart from Evan’s free kicks we struggled in open play and they did well to limit us to few chances of note in the first half. After the break we did improve and started to win balls and keep the ball better. Evans had more chances and hit the post and we had a number of other openings blocked or saved. You did feel a goal was coming and so it proved with a good cross from Lowton turned in by a defender. We then scored straight after with a good decisive finish from Evans. After this there was only one winner really. We could have had more goals and it was relatively comfortable especially after the third. The late goal for them came too late to affect things but again was sloppy defending.

It was not very good though and the passing was at times really poor and the only time we kept it with any really consistency was when we passed it round at the back but did not go anywhere. The midfield 4 were quite poor with decent footballers struggling to impose themselves on poor/so called inferior opponents. Cresswell did little to nothing and we lacked pace all over the field. I felt sorry for McDonald and Flynn who surely would have injected some creativity and offered something a bit different but I suppose as we have been winning he did not want to change the team too much. The Beattie thing is odd as it seems pointless signing and paying him if we are not going to use him although I heard he had a slight calf problem? We had 7 subs today so surely he could have been named and used for 10 minutes or so. If he is that unfit/injured and out of shape then we should not have bothered signing him as at this rate by the time he plays his contract could be up and could move on elsewhere. Seems all very strange as he had had 3 or 4 weeks to get fit and needs matches to improve this. Today not being a league game and against a lower division team was an ideal opportunity for him to gain some match practice.

United have been quite poor in recent weeks and been lucky to get wins. They will have to improve in the next few games as I feel Rochdale and Bournemouth will offer harder opposition than Chesterfield and Torquay. At the moment we have maybe 2 or 3 players playing well 5 or 6 being distinctly average and 2 or 3 being pretty woeful. Worryingly it seems Evans and Collins are the two players that have been consistently good whilst others like Cresswell/Porter and Quinn have been consistently awful.

Torquay – They started the game very well of course and scored a well taken if preventable opener inside the first few minutes. After this they defended well and got bodies in the way and men behind the ball but could easily have scored another couple on the break. It was a perfect first half performance for an away side at a higher division team in the cup; get an early goal and defend playing on the break. After the interval they did sit further and further back and were fortunate on a few incidents and were lucky to stay in front but the goal when it came was a little unfortunate I suppose. After this they fell apart and United actually could have gone on to score 5 or 6. The late goal from them gave the scoreline and reflection of how the game ended an unrealistic look but Torquay had been 1-0 up for well over an hour of the game so I suppose they will be disappointed how they fell to pieces towards the end of the game.

They were not that much better than Oxford but the difference was they got the early goal and had something to defend. Despite United being poor and some players having shockers; a little more composure and better finishing and United still could have been level or ahead well before this did actually happen. The lad up front Howe was a real handful and toiled hard often on his own. The rest of his teammates battled hard and tried to stop United making ground on their goal but they tired near the end and mistakes came in that led to some of the goals being conceded. They did not let themselves down and gave it a real good go and looked like they may get at least a replay for a long stage of the game but the 2 quick goals stunned them and basically sealed the game as they had not really looked like scoring in the second half until the late finish which was almost the last kick of the game.

Simonsen 7/10 – Had little chance with the two goals and the other couple of chances they had of note were when they shot wide when one on one and Howe dithered after rounding him. He saved a few low shots near the end that he held well. His distribution was up and down again. He made a few good well placed kicks to men (if meant) but a few awful ones that barely reached half way both from his feet and hands.

Lowton 6.5/10 – He had a mixed sort of afternoon as he showed some good features, such as a few excellent crosses including the one that led to the own goal and some decent gallops forward but also was sloppy at times in possession and guilty of not getting close enough to his man once again. He was poor on the second goal being too slow to sense the danger and letting them advance and score too easy.

Williams 4/10 – He once again had a really poor game. Some decent bits of defending but too often bombing forward and absolving responsibility defensively. Someone needs to tell him he is a left back first and foremost! A few times he let the ball bounce or refused to use his right foot. He seems to have gone backwards in recent weeks.

Maguire 6/10 – Off the pace completely first half but better in the second half. Up against a difficult opponent in Howe who was strong and a willing runner. He completely lost him for the goal being 5 yards off him and allowing him to take a touch, steady himself and score easily. He lost his man again on another occasion when they could have made it 2-0 but he did improve in the second half and won a lot of good tackles, made some blocks and got tighter to his man. He and Lowton would also have been disappointed with the sloppy second goal which was conceded way too easily. Continues to hit the aimless long, diagonal ball when he needs to just use his decent technique and find a man.

Collins 7/10 – Once again another good performance. He was not at fault for either of the goals and in overall play he defended sensibly and used the ball well when he could. He really has improved a lot and is doing the basics but doing them well. I still feel he could do with a better partner and maybe some pace alongside him but he is a definite contender for player of the season so far.

Doyle 5/10 – He was awful for much of the first half and his bad touch/passing were a feature of a poor first half performance from United. He could not even execute a simple square ball or ball back to the centre halves and I noticed at least 2 or 3 hospital balls he put out. It was odd as due to others not imposing themselves (Quinn, Williamson, McAlllister) he seemed to see more of the ball than the rest. He actually got much better as the game went on and started to win more tackles and actually passed it better (mixed with some awful passes). However, as much as I am one of his biggest critics I would say that compared to the aforementioned players he has less ability/passing skill and technique but still probably got more involved than any of those players. He did not hide and kept looking for the ball. It would have been easy for him to go into his shell with the criticism he was getting but he kept looking for the football to be fair to him. Just that he gave it away most of the time he had it!!! Still he probably had more impact than any of the others. That show how bad the rest of the midfield was.

McAllister 3/10 – After his performances at the back end of last season I had been surprised he had not featured much this season but after last week at Chesterfield and today I can definitely see why and would not be surprised if he is not near the first team for a while. He made a few ok passes but gave the ball away as much as anyone and seemed to be struggling to get on the ball or win the loose balls. Thought he contributed very little and that the game just bypassed him for the most part. Doyle was poor but at least he was involved (bad passing and some awful touches were main features but at least he was noticed!). I forgot he was even playing when they eventually took him off.

Williamson 4.5/10 – Surprised to see him feature as he of course had hobbled off (again) last week but he did not really do enough. Seemed to just drift through the game and the number of times he failed to beat the first man with a cross I lost count of. Needs to do a lot better than that and he is maddeningly inconsistent this season.
Also stupidly got involved in a few stupid incidents at the end; including going in high on an opponent and then arguing with Howe unnecessarily and raising his hands Howe to be fair was even worse) and was lucky to get away with it.

Quinn 4/10 – Poor again. Stupid flicks, poor first touch, misplaced passes and headless chicken style running around were all features of another shocking performance. Whilst Evans is working his socks off and determined to try and play at a higher level again; Quinn actually seems to have gone backwards in recent weeks and his excellent start to the season seems a long, long time ago. Seems to blame everyone but himself when things go wrong, pointing at teammates, the referee, the turf or anything he can find to excuse blame. May need dropping to make him realise his performances are not good enough at the moment.

Evans 8/10 – Excellent again and easily our stand out player. He put in lots of effort and seems really determined to make an impact at the moment. Whether he is playing for a move in January or simply the penny has dropped I do not know. What I do know is that he has never chased, harried and covered as much ground as in the last month or so. His rewards have been to get goals and he genuinely looks like he will score every game. His record on free kicks at the moment is phenomenal and it is rare (one wild one from distance in the second half apart) that he does not get them on target / make the keeper make a save. Took his 2 goals well and of course gave a nice tribute to Gary Speed. Could have had more goals, hitting the post and having the keeper save quite a few other efforts; mainly free kicks. At the moment teams will be looking at him in the transfer window and it may be he has done enough to get a move back to the Championship.

Cresswell 4/10 – He did not do enough all game. He huffed and puffed and put lots of effort in but always seemed so slow to react to things and his complete lack of pace and mobility is really starting to show. I would thought an experienced front man who has played most of his career in the top two divisions would be too wily for a team like Torquay but he struggled to impose himself on relatively poor opposition. Evans seemed quite frustrated with his choices and link play and I am surprised it took right till the death before he went off. The step over where he lets the ball run through his legs and turns to run...sorry amble onto it never works as despite him being only one who knows he is going to do it (and all us who have seen it so many times) the defender still seems to always get there first! Did not really look like scoring despite having quite a few half chances or opportunities where he should have got on the end of crosses. The fact he has barely scored in recent months (1 v MK Dons only goal I can recall for a long time?) says it all.


McDonald – Came on and looked to get on the ball. At least looked like he could probe and make an opening with a clever through ball or pass. He still probably did not get on the ball enough but we did improve when he came on as we had something different in the middle of the park. I can see why Wilson does not always play him as he leaves us vulnerable when teams break/attack us due to lack of pace/stamina/tackling ability. However in a game against a team like Torquay; with all due respect; I would have thought we could get away with a Doyle/Monty and McDonald combination?

Jean Francois – Came on and was a real mixed bag with some bizarre erratic clearances mixed in with some decent defending. He looked good when he came to the club and was one of the standout performers earlier in the season but now when he does play he does not exactly fill me with confidence. With Williams' loss of form in this position it is not an area where we exactly look solid at the moment.

Porter – Actually won a few headers when he came on but it is hard to make a case for him or Cresswell at the moment as both have not really done enough in games against teams that they should really stand out against. The fact they don’t stand out says what poor players they are unfortunately.

Officials – Thought he was poor. He was incredibly fussy and at times gave some strange free kicks or wanted them taken from just the right spot. He gave some mystifying free kicks both ways and then let a few go that looked fouls. I thought we had a few ignored and then in the second he went through a spell when he gave Torquay nothing (2 or 3 clear fouls in the corner near John Street I felt?). Most of the bookings were regulation yellow cards with a few cynical trips from their players. Good that Mr Sarginson had the sense to not book Evans when he scored and lifted his shirt to reveal the dedication to Speed on a t shirt underneath. It has been excellent to see some common sense from some referees on such things (Sharp the other week was another example of this) in recent times. He did warn him not to do it again on the second goal though as he then may have had to book him!

Crowd/Atmosphere – I was pleased that the crowd topped 10,000 and of course it almost doubled the previous round’s crowd. There were some nice tributes to Speed outside the ground (liked the posters that had been put up around the car park on the lights) and then inside headed by the speech from Sinclair. His words and the way he delivered it keeping his composure was very good and despite some of the criticism he has had (Tom Hark still being played etc) he came up trumps today. The game actually did not kick off until around ten past three due to the speeches/applause and laying of wreaths from Robert Page and Chris Morgan. Evans gesture also was a good touch after he scored and led to more chanting of Gary Speed’s name but it was fairly muted and not exactly the whole ground singing which was a little poor. I was a little disappointed with the ‘flags’ on the Kop. I had expected lots and lots of flags and tributes laid on the seats but there was barely anything. Don’t want to be too critical of the club but surely a huge banner could have been bought and laid over the entire Kop? Maybe I am being harsh. Overall it was nice to see him recognised and the chants and ‘Stand up if you love Speedo’ was also respected and joined in well by the Torquay fans but it was fairly quiet and the chants were not quiet as loud and as continual as I would have thought.

As for the game United fans were very frustrated and understandably so with such a poor first half and there were expected boos as the players trooped off at the break. The improvement in the second half saw a bit more noise from the previously subdued home fans. The visiting Torquay fans were excellent. They brought probably 400-500 and they were loud and passionate in backing their team. In recent weeks some of the away following have really done their clubs proud coming in decent numbers and with good support despite most of them leaving the Lane with nothing.