Gnashing Blades

AS if the stresses of maintaining a promotion challenge with a tiny squad were not draining enough, Sheffield United have spent a large part of the last seven days involved in one of football’s more curious dust-ups.

The Blades are none too happy with Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel – a writer who is starting to pop up regularly in this blog (take it as a compliment, Martin).

Samuel alleged that United had broken FA rules on third-party influence by persuading Charlton not to play midfielder Matthew Spring against them in an FA Cup tie at Bramall Lane eight days ago.

The claim is that the Blades had no right to do this. Spring was on a season-long loan at Bramall Lane from Luton, which was terminated at Christmas before he signed for Charlton on a permanent deal – but he was never a permanent Sheffield United player.

Of course, allegations of third-party influence are a bit of a sore point at Bramall Lane, with United set to receiving millions in compensation after a landmark legal victory over West Ham regarding the Carlos Tevez affair.

United themselves have denied any wrongdoing in the Spring case, and chairman Kevin McCabe got personal with Samuel in Tuesday’s Sheffield Star.

“This is an outrageous article and wholly inaccurate,” McCabe said. “We have not broken any Football Association and Football League rules.

“For some time now, Martin Samuel has pursued a crusade against Sheffield United.

“As usual, his reports are without foundation and I suggest he concentrates his time on reporting the truth rather than spurious allegations.

“I gather Martin is a West Ham supporter, so maybe in some way he believes his regular attacks on the Blades helps to protect their wrongdoings over the Tevez affair.”

Sheffield United remain adamant that they should not have been relegated from the Premier League in 2007. West Ham survived at their expense thanks largely to the influence of Tevez who, it has since been ruled by an independent arbitration panel, should have been declared ineligible for the closing games of that season.

There is an outside chance that the Blades will make it back to the Premier League this season. But on the evidence of yesterday’s tedious goalless draw at Preston, it’s going to be tough.

The problem manager Kevin Blackwell has is that he is running out of players. He was able to name only six substitutes (he was permitted seven) for the FA Cup tie against Charlton, and it was something of a struggle to fill his bench yesterday, too.

Experienced campaigners such as Ugo Ehiogu and Gary Speed are on the sick list, midfielder Nick Montgomery and left-back Gary Naysmith both had to shrug off knocks to play, and the forward line has been weakened by the sale of 12-goal top scorer James Beattie to Stoke for £3.5million.

Blackwell would have been permitted a wry smile on learning that Beattie had scored the winner for his new club against Manchester City yesterday lunchtime. Seventy miles up the M6, the man charged with filling Beattie’s boots – Darius Henderson – spent a frustrating afternoon running into the brick wall of Preston’s defence.

Henderson, a £2million summer signing from Watford, is a hard worker. But he can’t be expected to play up front on his own every week. He needs some help, which is why Blackwell is desperately trying to find another striker before tomorrow’s transfer deadline.

If he doesn’t, there is a danger that United’s hard-won Championship play-off spot may slip from their grasp in the closing three months of the season.

Preston, like the Blades, have had to be thrifty in building a play-off challenge. And like the Blades, they are running out of players.

North End manager Alan Irvine admitted afterwards that his 16-man squad had picked itself – because they were the only players that were fit. In the circumstances, a draw wasn’t a bad result for his team – although it was hard to argue with defender Sean St Ledger’s assertion that, had the game taken place in his back garden, he would have closed the curtains.

There was one mildly controversial moment, 13 minutes from the end. Stephen Quinn fired a shot low into the corner through a crowded penalty area. Referee Scott Mathieson ruled it out because Danny Webber was standing in an offside position.

Preston should have won it late on, but substitute Chris Brown fired over from eight yards – and probably found himself instantly regretting an interview he had given to the matchday programme.

Brown had talked in the article about a difficult year at Norwich, claiming he had increasingly started to feel as if he was bonding with Alan Partridge.

“I used to walk around and see if I could see him, but I never could,” said Brown (with his tongue in his cheek, I hope). After that miss, the striker had football pie all over his shirt.

United’s biggest concern was not the disallowed goal, but a first-half hamstring injury to captain Chris Morgan. National newspaper columnists accusing you of breaking the rules is probably less of a worry to the club right now that the prospect of losing their skipper for any length of time.

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