WHEN Danny Wilson began his last post-match press conference by enquiring if any members of the audience fancied a run-out at Walsall tonight he was only half talking in jest.
A combination of injury and suspension means Sheffield United could travel to the Banks’s Stadium with only two recognised defenders at their disposal following an anarchic defeat by Oldham Athletic which spawned a brace of red cards and the sight of Lecsinel Jean-Francois being carried-off the pitch in considerable distress.
United’s coaching staff were still counting the cost of the maddest 90 minutes Bramall Lane has witnessed this season when they reconvened at Shirecliffe yesterday. But assistant manager Frank Barlow, deputising for Wilson at the club’s pre-game media briefing, spread a veneer of calm across the chaos by revealing a contingency plan was already taking shape.
“We’ve put our thinking caps on,” he said. “And we’ll deal with it because that’s what being a professional is about.”
If Saturday afternoon did serve a purpose, other than to edge Charlton Athletic one step closer towards promotion, it was to smash the air of complacency surrounding United’s efforts to join them in the Championship next term. Recent results have seduced many supporters and, on the evidence of their second-half display against Paul Dickov’s side, several players into thinking that a top two finish is all but assured.
Wilson, it must be said, has never been guilty of taking anything for granted. Indeed, only last week he warned the battle for a place in English football’s second tier would “go right down to the wire”.
But, amid the panic, it is easy to forget that United are still second in the League One table and four points ahead of their nearest rivals.
“You can analyse football all you want,” said Barlow. “You can think you know it all but the game always manages to throw-up things that you can never explain.
“We regret what happened (against Oldham). We are disappointed and we are angered but as professionals we also move on.”
When Shefki Kuqi smashed home a 90th minute penalty, Oldham became the fourth team to have scored three or more goals against United in the competition since Wilson’s appointment nine months ago. Curiously, only Huddersfield Town, who recorded an emphatic win in September’s Yorkshire derby at Bramall Lane, enjoyed a top six ranking at the time.
Nevertheless, despite its ca
pitulation against the visitors fom Boundary Park, United’s rearguard has been breached just 34 times in its last 33 outings. Only leaders Charlton have conceded fewer on their travels.
Wilson will need to draw upon all of his experience and motivational powers to protect that record tonight although he will
take heart from the fact that Walsall are far from prolific with a goalscoring record of only one per game on home soil this season.
Given the sheer scale of the reorganisation being planned – Marcus Williams could join fellow full-back Andy Taylor in United’s squad after returning to training yesterday – Barlow insisted it would be “unfair” to ask youngsters such as Terry Kennedy to plug the gaps.
“I won’t name them but there are players coming through here that we really fancy,” Barlow said. “Hopefully there will be opportunities to get them involved in the squad between now and the end of the season. We certainly expect that to be the case.
“If it was a case of bringing someone in to a settled squad then okay. But to ask a lad at the start of their career to go out there and lead the charge if you like – well – that’s different.”
United seemed destined for a comfortable victory when they took a two goal lead against Oldham. But when Richard Cresswell inadvertently turned the ball into his own net and Matthew Lowton was dismissed soon after, they unravelled in alarming fashion. Harry Maguire will join Lowton on the sidelines this evening after also being sent off during the closing stages of the 3-2 defeat.
“Oldham were on the floor but we helped them up,” said Barlow. “But we’ll learn the lesson of what happened and draw a line.”
Teams and ref
WALSALL (possible): Grof, Sadler, Butler, Lancashire, Taundry, Hurst, Peterlin, Cuvelier, Macken, Grigg, Paterson (4-4-2).
UNITED (possible): Simonsen, Taylor, Ertl, Cresswell, Montgomery, Doyle, Williamson, Quinn, Hoskins, Porter, Evans (4-4-2).
Graham Scott: Like Jonathan Moss, who dismissed two Sheffield United players during Saturday’s game against Walsall, the Oxfordshire official is not shy of producing red cards. Has issued nine already this term; the same number he brandished in total last season.
One to watch
Kevan Hurst, who started his career with Sheffield United before joining Scunthorpe in May 2007, will be desperate to impress. Has also represented Boston, Stockport, Chesterfield, Carlisle and Morecambe since graduating from the visitors’ youth system.
Walsall were beaten 3-2 at Bramall Lane earlier this season but impressed with the manner of their performance. Richard Cresswell, Lee Williamson and Matthew Lowton, who is suspended tonight, scored Sheffield United’s goals during the midweek fixture.