Football: Blades find Cup brings welcome distraction

Guy Hodgson reports on a big weekend for Yorkshire in the FA Cup quarter-finals, while Nick Harris (below) looks at the team news
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The Independent Online
THERE was a time when football clubs would use simple methods to take players' minds off a big match. Don Revie swore by bingo, Peter Reid just swears, but Sheffield United have taken the art of distraction to new heights this week.

In the space of five days, the Blades have lost, in turn, a manager, an unbeaten record, their chairman and most of their credibility as more rattles have been thrown out of prams than at a pre-nursery creche. Little wonder Dean Saunders said yesterday it had been difficult to concentrate on today's FA Cup quarter-final at Coventry.

"As soon as the final whistle went against Ipswich on Tuesday, and the disappointment of not winning the game had gone, we should have started thinking about playing Coventry," Saunders, who misses the tie because of a hamstring injury, said. "But that was not the case."

Safe to say that when the dressing-room door opens and someone announces "the manager", United's players will pay more attention than normal. Just to see it who is for a start, or, if someone has been appointed, to see if he has survived the coach ride down the M1.

Knowing the perversity of the Cup, Sheffield United will get at least a replay out of the trip to Highfield Road and it will be the visitors' relief at being able to put their off-pitch problems behind them that will worry Coventry most. In normal circumstances they would be favourites, but no one would accuse Bramall Lane of normality this week.

As Nigel Spackman said before his resignation in the week: "Of course we'll be underdogs, and in a sense we are surprised to have reached the last eight. But that will work in our favour. You only have to look at last year and see how well Chesterfield did to realise anything can happen in the FA Cup."

The smoke of battle bellowing out of Sheffield has largely hidden the fact that Yorkshire has got three teams in the quarter-finals, the most likely of whom are Leeds United. A kind draw has continued until today when they meet non-Premiership Wolves, although there would be a confident beat coming out of Elland Road no matter who they were playing.

Leeds finished Wednesday's win over Tottenham with six 21-year-olds on the pitch and as five regular first-teamers are again available, their manager, George Graham, said: "It gives me a headache for probably the first time since I came to the club. It was wonderful to think I had half a team watching from the stands against Tottenham, yet we won fairly comfortably in the end. Do I make changes? It's a nice dilemma to have."

As for Wolves, who knows how they will play? Premiership one day, Second Division the next, they defeated Wimbledon fairly comfortably in the fifth round, but have not sparkled in the League since.

Barnsley are the third Yorkshire survivors, although they have shunned the FA Cup this week rather than embracing it. Not that they are taking tomorrow's tie at Newcastle lightly, but because superstition has prevented them going to see the trophy on display at the Littlewoods store just a few hundred yards from Oakwell.

Superstitious or not, Barnsley have accounted for Bolton, Tottenham and Manchester United so far and the tie will be far from the walkover it might have seemed three months ago.

"Manchester United and Teddy Sheringham one week, Newcastle and Alan Shearer the next - it's a dream come true for me," Chris Morgan, their 21-year-old centre-back, said.

"I was standing next to Teddy after the game at United and I thought: `I will be cheering you on in the World Cup'. It'll be the same on Sunday when I come up against Shearer. It's been a real eye-opener, but it's brilliant, especially when you consider that up until recently I was in the reserves."

Eye-opener might not have been the most tactful phrase in view of the opponents. Getting away from it all in Dublin probably seemed like a good idea until Keith Gillespie hurt his head in circumstances that still have not been properly explained. The Northern Ireland winger will play tomorrow, complete with stitches in his mysterious wound.

If Gillespie has a headache, then so has the West Ham manager, Harry Redknapp. He may be forced to employ a five-man midfield at Arsenal tomorrow as John Hartson is suspended, Paul Kitson is injured and Trevor Sinclair is Cup-tied. The Upton Park cult figure Samassi Abou is likely to lead a one-man attack.

TODAY

Coventry City v Sheffield United

1987 FA Cup Wins 1899, 1902, 15, 25

Coventry's veteran goalkeeper Steve Ogrizovic will be recalled after Magnus Hedman suffered a midweek ankle injury in training. Midfielder Paul Telfer has been suffering from a virus, but is expected to be fit, while Noel Whelan is hoping to overcome a knee injury. Gary McAllister would have marked his senior comeback today, but damaged a cruciate ligament in a reserve game on Wednesday and will be out until next season at least. Coventry have won their last seven consecutive Premiership matches, a club record, to go 10th in the League.

Sheffield United will be without Dean Saunders. The former Nottingham Forest and Liverpool forward is out with a hamstring injury while Roger Nilsen is still out with a calf problem. Acting manager Steve Thompson will also be missing Ian Rush, Shaun Derry and Jon Cullen, who are cup- tied. United go into today's match having lost 1-0 to fellow First Division promotion contenders last Tuesday, and knowing they must contend with the in-form striker Darren Huckerby, whom Thompson discovered as a teenager when he was the manager of Lincoln.

Leeds United v Wolverhampton Wanderers

1972 FA Cup Wins 1893, 1908, 49, 60

George Graham has five first-team regulars returning today. Lucas Radebe (African Nations Cup), Gary Kelly (bereavement), David Wetherall and Alfie Haland (suspended) and Bruno Ribeiro (groin strain) all missed Wednesday's 1-0 home win over Tottenham. However, Graham finished that game with six players aged 21 and under and must decide whether to keep faith with the young players or recall the regulars. Leeds have won only two of their last nine Premiership games. They were knocked out of the FA Cup by Portsmouth last season.

Wolves will make a late fitness check on goalkeeper Mike Stowell before today. Stowell's run of 127 consecutive senior appearances ended in midweek when he missed the 1-1 draw at Stoke with flu. Hans Segers took over to make his debut 20 months after joining the club and will again deputise if Stowell is unfit. Wolves have recalled striker Jason Roberts from a loan spell at Torquay and will include him among their substitutes, but Steve Froggatt is again out injured and Mixu Paatelainen starts a two- match ban. Don Goodman may return from injury.

TOMORROW

Arsenal v West Ham United

1930, 36, 50, 71, 79, 93 FA Cup Wins 1964, 75, 80

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will give a late fitness test to Dennis Bergkamp before tomorrow. The Dutchman missed the 0-0 Premiership draw between the two sides last Monday. Ray Parlour returns to the squad after injury but David Platt is out after he suffered an abdominal muscle strain. Ian Wright and Steve Bould are both still two weeks away from a return, while David Seaman has not fully recovered from a finger injury. However, the England goalkeeper is expected to be fit in time for England's next friendly on 25 March 25.

Harry Redknapp has injury worries. Tim Breacker and Paul Kitson are definitely out, while Stan Lazaridis, Ian Pearce, Steve Lomas, David Unsworth, and Rio Ferdinand have all been receiving treatment this week. John Hartson will be missing through suspension and Trevor Sinclair is cup-tied, so Redknapp's most likely option is to play Samassi Abou up front on his own. The only other recognised striker is reserve Lee Hodges, who could be on the bench. Craig Forrest (neck) has recovered and should return in place of Bernard Lama.

Newcastle United v Barnsley

1910, 24, 32, 51, 52, 55 FA Cup Wins 1912

Keith Gillespie's place in Newcastle's side tomorrow is in doubt after the events of the past week. Whether the winger, who has been the focus of much interest after receiving stitches to his head after an incident in Dublin during a mid-season break, will line up in an unchanged Magpies side is unknown.The Northern Ireland international scored both of Newcastle's goals in their drawn Premiership game at Oakwell in December. Steve Watson (ankle), Alessandro Pistone (ban) and Andy Griffin (cup-tied) are all unavailable to manager Kenny Dalglish.

Barnsley striker John Hendrie seems likely to be fit to face his old club, having limped out of the fifth-round replay with Manchester United with sprained ankle ligaments. If he plays, Hendrie will again take the place of the cup-tied Jan-Age Fjortoft, while South African international Eric Tinkler is likely to deputise for suspended Yugoslav midfielder Jovo Bosancic. Arjan de Zeeuw, who has not played since sustaining a groin strain midway through the first half of the game at Old Trafford, may make his return to the centre of defence.

Liverpool v Bolton

Owen 18 Leading scorer Blake 11

Last season: No fixture

Jamie Redknapp and Dominic Matteo are expected to return from injury for Liverpool. Both have progressed well, and along with Oyvind Leonhardsen, who has recovered from a heel injury, will be in the squad. Phil Babb (hamstring) is unlikely to play. Winger Mark Kennedy, who has been recalled from a loan spell at QPR, may feature. Roy Evans has agreed to an extra month extension to Michael Thomas' loan at Middlesbrough. Brad Friedel stands by to make his Anfield debut after taking over from David James at Aston Villa last weekend.

Bolton manager Colin Todd may give teenage left-back Hasney Aljofree a first-team debut at Liverpool today. Former England youth international Aljofree is out of contract in the summer and may move, but if he makes the Bolton side he is more likely to sign a new deal and stay. Mark Fish and Scott Sellars return, the former after international duty with South Africa and the latter after serving a two-match ban. Both are expected to start although Wanderers will still be missing long-term casualties Robbie Elliott, Mike Whitlow and Gerry Taggart.

Sheff Wed v Man United

Di Canio 12 Leading scorer Cole 22

Last season: 1-1

Sheffield Wednesday have problems in midfield, with Graham Hyde starting a two-match ban and Petter Rudi doubtful with a hamstring problem. Ron Atkinson could recall striker Andy Booth, who has recovered from a groin injury. Atkinson has also included Yugoslavian centre-back Dejan Stefanovic, fit again after hamstring and neck injuries, in the squad. Stefanovic may make his first Premiership start since December after impressive performances for Yugoslavia and Wednesday's reserves.

Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel has failed to recover from the calf and back problems suffered in the goalless European Cup draw in Monaco, so Raimond van der Gouw will make his first League start of the season. Denis Irwin (calf), Gary Pallister (back) and Ryan Giggs (hamstring) are all out, but David Beckham (calf) has recovered and will play, while striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is ready to return for his first start in a month. The champions will have played two and four games more than Blackburn and Arsenal respectively by tonight, but will maintain a lead of at least 11 points, and maybe extend it to 14.

Southampton v Everton

Davies 12 Leading scorer Ferguson 9

Last season: 2-2

Southampton will be without Kevin Davies for at least a month with an aggravation of the ankle injury he sustained against Manchester United in January. Midfielder David Hughes is ruled out with two fractured ribs, but defender John Beresford makes his long-awaited home debut after his pounds 1.5m move from Newcastle last month. Claus Lundekvam is expected to be fit after being substituted in last Saturday's 1-0 win at Leeds suffering from food poisoning. Richard Dryden and Ken Monkou, who is back after a two-match ban, contest a defensive place.

Dave Watson is expected to make his Everton return after rejecting a move to Manchester City and agreeing to sign a one-year extension to his contract. Watson will take over from Craig Short (knee injury) after being left on the bench for last weekend's goalless draw with Newcastle. Striker Nicky Barmby is also back in the squad after missing three games with a groin problem. Mitch Ward, Danny Williamson, Tony Grant and Michael Branch are all out, while Duncan Ferguson is still suspended. Slaven Bilic will return to the squad after training with Croatia.

Chelsea v Aston Villa

TOMORROW

Vialli 15 Leading scorer Yorke 9

Last season: 1-1

Chelsea striker Mark Hughes starts a two-match ban, so player- manager Gianluca Vialli is likely to recall himself up front to partner Tore Andre Flo tomorrow. Left-back Graeme Le Saux is a major doubt with an ankle injury, but defenders Frank Sinclair and Steve Clarke should be available after suffering minor knocks in the 2-1 win over Real Betis. Andy Myers should also be available after being allowed to miss the trip to Real Betis because his pregnant girlfriend's baby is overdue. Chelsea have won just one Premiership match in their last five and lost the other four, leaving them 14 points from the top.

Defender Steve Staunton is standing by for a return to the Aston Villa starting line-up in place of Riccardo Scimeca, who has a leg injury. Staunton made after impressive comeback as a substitute against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night. Villa will also check on the fitness of strikers Stan Collymore (ankle) and Savo Milosevic (knee) before the game. Villa's poor recent Premiership form saw them drop into the bottom six, but they will be looking to build on last Saturday's 2-1 defeat of Liverpool.

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