Is there anybody out there?

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

10 January 2022

A dull, slate grey sky with no wind and no home supporters in sight until just before the kick off. The attendance was later announced as over 11,000 - I think they must have played their joker on that one as the word sparse is leaping up and down demanding to be used in conjunction with the word crowd. It was a terribly bland stadium on a terribly bland day, with no atmosphere at all. And this, surely, must have been their biggest game of the season! A few Town fans amused themselves with close-quarter baiting of the mascot (a pirate type spongey-man).

Town lined up in the usual 4-4-2 formation as follows: Coyne, Butterfield, Gallimore, Lever, Groves, Gallimore, Donovan, Coldicott, Pouton, D Smith, Ashcroft and Clare. The substitutes were Croudson, Black, Allen, A Buckley and Livingstone. So Butterfield was the only different starter from the last game. Town played in the cheap T-shirt strip of two-tone blue hoops.

The game kicked off and we hardly noticed. It was as if no-one in the ground was interested.

1st Half
Sheffield United kicked off towards the Town fans (about double the contingent at Barnsley) in the usual Warnock style – a high hoof towards a big bloke running down the touchline. It went out for a Town throw-in. Town slowly worked their way up the left and the ball eventually reached Clare, about 20 yards out near the edge of the penalty box. He held off a challenge, running across the box and hit a low right-foot shot straight at the keeper, to the right of the goal. The next four or five minutes saw many, many throw-ins with the ball knocked high towards the Town defenders, who simply headed the ball away. The monotony was broken by, firstly, Marcus Bent falling over the advertising boards right in front of the Town supporters and, secondly, Clare replicating his earlier effort, beating two challengers and shooting a yard wide of the keeper's right-hand post.

The match was interminable, with time marching slowly through thick treacle. After several hours (that were really only a further 10 minutes) Town had another inconsequential effort. Fine interplay down the right involving Butterfield, Donovan and Clare saw the ball crossed to Ashcroft, about 15 yards out, to the (Town) right of the goal. He controlled it on his chest, swivelled, and hooked a right-foot volley three or four yards over the bar. He had another shot a couple of minutes later, which was equally wayward, but even less interesting to describe. Around the same time Pouton was seen for the first time when he reacted to a miscontrol 25 yards out and hit a first time right foot shot quite weakly straight at the keeper.

Sheffield United had started the game by attacking down the Town right, but had got nowhere. Their first thrust down the left resulted in Gallimore dallying and failing to run after the ball when it was played past him. The winger crossed to somewhere near the penalty spot, where a midfielder hurtled in and, unmarked, headed firmly but high slightly to Coyne's left. Coyne arched back and tipped the ball just over the bar for a corner.

There wasn't much football being played, with the midfielders largely redundant as an attacking force, save for the occasional run by a Blade which was dealt with by Coldicott the destroyer. He knows how to block runs by accidentally colliding with someone. Nothing much was seen of Pouton. Well what can you do when the ball is constantly 10 feet above your head? Then, near the half hour, he produced one of his stirring, surging 30-yard dribbles, starting with his famous step-over, and ending with a fall in the area. Pouton wanted a penalty and, strangely, so did the Town fans, though being over 100 yards away we couldn't really see it. So we all agreed anyway - it was a definite penalty. Why let the lack of evidence get in the way of blind allegiance?

The Blades were about the same standard as Huddersfield (damning with faint praise indeed), playing the same ugly game. They only had a couple more efforts in the first half – a 20 yard drive which sliced a yard wide (Coyne had it covered anyway); and another 20-yarder, following a corner, which Coyne pushed aside low to his right. The shot came through a rather crowded penalty box and so, as such, was a very good save. Apart from two or three deep crosses which their players failed to head properly (they didn’t jump high enough under pressure from Lever and Groves, so the ball never went near goal or with any power) and a couple of poor dives in the penalty area they did nothing, and with little urgency either. In fact their ball boys showed more urgency and commitment, throwing a new ball to a Sheffield United player immediately the ball went out of play (something they never did for us of course).

The Town midfield and full-backs closed down Blades in wide areas, rarely allowing them time and space to get in crosses. Although Gallimore was exposed a few times through bad positioning and mental slowness he did manage to get parts of his considerable body in the way of the resulting crosses most of the time. Those penalty claims should have resulted in bookings as both were dives (after D Smith and Lever had won tackles cleanly) and were both within a few yards of the referee. They were either dives or fouls. Either way the referee should have been taking action. Still, it was nice to see Lever plant his knee in the second United player's chest and wag his finger very threateningly. That player never dived again (or went near Lever). Our Yorkies are harder than their Yorkies.

If anything, Town had the better of the first half, even producing a couple of decent moves. From one such, again down the right, Clare and Ashcroft linked 25 yards out, with first time flicks. Ashcroft, just outside the area, near the centre, chested a lay off into the path of Butterfield, who had sprinted into a big space between the centre-backs and the left-back. Butterfield hit the ball first time, on the half volley, and the ball flew three or four feet over the bar. A couple of minutes later Butterfield tried an extremely speculative volley from 35 yards out which bounced twice before reaching the keeper. I have another vague recollection of Ashcroft shooting tamely wide or high from the left side of the penalty box.

The best opportunity for anyone arrived about 10 minutes before half time. A free kick about 30 yards out on the Town left was clipped in by D Smith into the middle of the penalty area. Clare was unmarked about 15 yards out but failed to control the ball (it got stuck between his legs) and it was hacked away.

Half time arrived at 3.51, following some long stoppages for injuries. At least three of these stoppages resulted in Town playing with 10 men, firstly when Pouton was treated, secondly when a Sheffield United player crumpled in the middle of the pitch (bizarrely the Blade stayed on and Lever went off) and finally when Gallimore was injured making a sliding tackle in extra time. There was relief all round that the half was ended as it had been really boring. The Sheffield supporters only made some noise following the penalty appeals, but then only half-heartedly. Excitement? Well there were a couple of foul throws.

Even the half time entertainment was lacking - it wasn't even risible. There were a dozen teenage girls dressed in red and white dancing to an undistinguished sub-standard dance track and, to the side of the pitch, half a dozen schoolboys kicking balls through a tyre. It was like everyone involved with Sheffield United was going through the motions of finishing this season. Been there, done that, haven't we.

2nd half
After two or three minutes of hobbling around, Gallimore was replaced by Der Kaiser: Mr Livvo. Town switched to a 5-3-2 formation with Livvo at left centre-back, Groves central centre-back and Lever right centre-back. D Smith and Butterfield acted a wing-backs, and Pouton (left) and Donovan (right) flanked Coldicott in the midfield. For 10 or so minutes Town were a little disorganised with players visibly uncertain where to stand. This resulted in Town being constantly under pressure as they were also failing to clear properly, rarely reaching touch. However, Sheffield did not get any efforts on goal, merely shooting very wide from outside the area. Their preferred route to goal was a deep cross to the far post where they attempted to get the big players (usually Bent) jumping with our little full-backs/wing-backs (usually Butterfield and D Smith). Either the little 'uns timed their jumps perfectly or one of the centre-backs covered adequately. Lever and Groves were most prominent in this.

Until injury time Coyne did not make a save in the second half – such was the quality of defending and, of course, Sheffield attacking. There were several dangerous moments which were neutralised by such gems as the Lever head (getting in the way of a fierce shot from the edge of the box), Butterfield's shins and back (blocks at the far and near post following crosses) and a Livvo bicycle kick (when he was last man and two Blades were running forward to a headed flick on).

Around the hour Town started to exert some control over the match, retaining possession and passing through the midfield. The first attack of any intent from Town saw Donovan slice a shot high to the left of the goal, from a central position 20 yards out. It followed some harrying and scampering by Clare and D Smith, who linked down the left and slipped the ball sideways to Donovan. A couple of minutes later Town nearly scored. A break down the Town right was half repelled, but Clare stole the ball back, held the line and awaited Butterfield as he sprinted forward. Clare played the ball behind the full-back and Butterfield took the ball on and crossed from near the bye-line. His low cross went across the face of goal and out to the left-hand side, about eight yards wide of the goal and three or four in from the bye-line. D Smith tried to drive the ball back between the keeper and the left-hand post, but it was diverted on to the post and out for a corner.

A few minutes later Butterfield curled a pass down the right touchline towards Ashcroft. A defender stretched to hook clear but the ball went to the unmarked Clare, about 20 yards out, just to the right of centre. Rather than take the ball forward into the huge space between him and the goalkeeper Clare tried to hit a half-volley into the bottom left-hand corner. He missed by a couple of feet. He didn't last many more minutes on the pitch after this, being replaced by…..Black (the man who fills me with inertia). Black ran on and immediately swung a free kick, about 20 yards out to the left of the goal, into the penalty area. It was half cleared to the edge of the box where a Town player whacked in a shot towards the keeper's bottom left corner. It hit a defender suspiciously close to an arm, near the six-yard box, and was walloped away.

A few minutes later Pouton dribbled into the penalty area at speed, on the Town left, past a defender and fell down claiming a penalty. As part of his shirt was at least a foot above his head and in the right hand of a Sheffield United player, this suggests he was fouled. Only a suggestion of course. Where's the evidence, eh? Town only had one more effort after this, a six-man one-touch passing move down and across the Town left, which resulted in Pouton dragging a right foot shot a couple of feet wide of the keeper's right-hand post.

And that was that, as I often say, apart from a huge scare in the last minute. Livvo, under no pressure about 20 yards out, gently headed a loose high ball back to Coyne. Unfortunately a Sheffield forward was behind him and running at full speed towards the ball. Coyne raced out and knocked the ball over and away from the Blade, collecting it a few yards to his left (whilst Livvo held his head in shame and disgust). The fourth official put up the extra time board showing three minutes. The tannoy announced three minutes of extra time. So the referee played one minute 50 seconds. And everybody was grateful for him cutting short the tedium. Pity he didn't think of that an hour or so earlier.

Generally Town deserved the point more than Sheffield United. Town were solid, but mundane. The Blades were rotten (or should that be oxidising before our very eyes, playmates). The local paper said Warnock had given seven players free transfers – perhaps a few more after today's anaemic display. The ball was rarely on the ground, but when it was Town had no difficulties whatsoever. There were few opportunities to attack, especially through the middle, where Pouton only had a couple of chances to do the Pouton surge. Ashcroft was largely ineffective, spending most of his afternoon playing for free kicks. In the end his attempts were rather cursory and very unconvincing. Strangely there were a couple of moments when he sprinted and got stuck in. But only a couple. He had an irritating afternoon (he was irritated and so were we). He did three sumptuous first-time lay-offs and passes to set up Sheffield attacks. Clare was by far the busier and stronger attacker, though his decision making was poor (he shot when he should have passed and vice versa). I cannot remember Coldicott losing any tackles or challenges and even Donovan showed some strength and determination in defence. Apart from Gallimore, none of the defence put a foot wrong (Livvo nearly put a head wrong with his last minute boo-boo) and Coyne touched the ball less than a dozen times.

Gallimore was very odd. A couple of times after he had made errors, he turned round and raged at…no-one. It was a bit like those embarrassing drunks who wander round shouting at themselves and imaginary demons. Quite.

There really was no point in this game being played. No-one was interested. It was very boring. Even the Lever moment was a damp squib – he hit a back pass far too hard, wide and high leaving Coyne to thwack a hasty fly kick under pressure. There weren't even any bad hairstyles to keep the discerning viewer amused. Still, does the occasion matter if Town kept a clean sheet and edged towards the comfort zone?