Shane old Shane old at Shirecliffe

Likely starter: Shane Lowry should play against Bristol City.
Likely starter: Shane Lowry should play against Bristol City.

THESE are testing times for Sheffield United. And not just on the pitch.

For the past few weeks, fresh subjects for discussion during the club’s regular pre-match press conferences have proved every bit as elusive as encouraging results.

Micky Adams and his players might prop up the rest of the Championship division in terms of points accrued. But they would be runaway leaders if positive spin and tautology exerted any influence over the rankings.

Survival, visitors to Shirecliffe are constantly told, remains possible despite the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary. Yesterday’s was no different.

“If we keep on going then crazy things can happen,” Shane Lowry, United’s on-loan defender, said. “It’s all about these final four games and we’ve got to keep on going.

“I know people have written us off. It’s easy to see why but until we are mathematically unable to get out of this position then we’ve got to keep on believing.”

United’s words echoed with extra resonance when, one month ago, a deserved victory over Leeds saw them gain ground on 21st placed Crystal Palace. Since then, successive defeats by Queens Park Rangers, Middlesbrough, Cardiff City and Preston North End have left them sounding increasingly hollow.

The ‘R’ Adams insists has yet to be written against their name could finally appear this weekend with today’s meeting between Palace and Doncaster Rovers at the Keepmoat Stadium being key. Should that end in a draw then United, irrespective of what happens against City, are safe for another 48 hours. If Palace win and United lose then their fate will be sealed before Monday’s visit to in-form Reading.

“I’ll keep an eye on what’s happening there,” Lowry said. “But I won’t be watching because I want to make sure I’m properly prepared for our match. That’s what I’ll be focused on.”

With his future at Aston Villa shrouded in doubt, the former Republic of Ireland under-21 international revealed he could be tempted to join United on a permanent basis should he be deemed surplus to requirements by Gerard Houllier.

The Frenchman, who underwent major surgery after suffering heart problems in 2001, is being treated in hospital following his admission on Wednesday night.

“I think I’ve become a better player by coming here,” he added. “I spoke to the assistant manager (at Villa) and the idea was to see if I could perform at Championship level.

“I’m enjoying playing games.”

With Ched Evans (knee) and Richard Cresswell (groin) both ruled out of the City contest, Joe Mattock is the only new addition to the United squad which lost at Deepdale.

With Evans seemingly destined for the exit door and still capable of commanding a significant fee, it would be a major surprise if he is risked at the Madejski Stadium.

Or, for that matter, against Barnsley and Swansea.

MATCHFACTS

The Teams

SHEFFIELD UNITED: Simonsen, Lowton, Maguire, Collins, Lowry, Doyle, Montgomery, Quinn, Riise, Slew, Henderson (4-4-2).

BRISTOL CITY: James, McAllister, Stewart, Nyatanga, Spence, Elliott, Campbell-Ryce, Cisse, Adomah, Maynard, Stead (4-4-2).

The Referee

Andy D’Urso: One of the most experienced officials in the competition, D’Urso spent seven seasons on the Select List and four on FIFA’s before reverting to Football League duties. Has issued 85 yellow and four red cards this term with the last of those sendings-off coming in January. Essex-based D’Urso’s last visit to Bramall Lane was 15 months ago when Stephen Quinn, Lee Williamson and Richard Cresswell were booked during a narrow win over Middlesbrough.

Tale Of The Tape

Tomorrow’s visitors have a miserable record at Bramall Lane where they have not secured a positive result since May 1988. They have also conceded 20 goals during the intervening period, scoring only three in the process. However, with Micky Adams’ side languishing at the foot of the table, they will be confident of repeating November’s 3-0 win at Ashton Gate when Brett Pitman (2) and Jamie McAllister were on the scoresheet.