Christmas cannot come soon enough for blunt Blades

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The Independent Online
West Bromwich Albion 3 Sheffield United 1

Dave Bassett once staged Sheffield United's Christmas party in August to try to trick his team into their winter form. After a fifth defeat in as many matches - a lesson in style on a shoestring from Albion - the United manager may be tempted to report for work today kitted out as Santa Claus.

Everyone knows there is no sanity clause in football management, but at least the colours would be more in keeping with United's traditions than the purple and yellow number they wore, for no good reason, at The Hawthorns. Despite the disguise, Bassett's team were instantly recognisable to those who saw them during the early part of any of the past five seasons.

For when it comes to bad starts, often dragging on into a mediocre middle period before the annual recovery, their position at the foot of the First Division tells a numbingly familiar story. In 1990/91 they failed to win any of the first 16 games yet survived in what is now the Premiership; 12 months on they took two of the first 21 points but still came ninth.

After Bassett's yuletide caper, three years ago, the Blades began by cutting down Manchester United, took a solitary point from the next six matches and stayed up. The following season, which opened with two wins in 16, they were finally relegated. Last time they won one and lost five of the first seven. Now it is happening again, but Bassett insists the only pressure is that manufactured by the media.

"Every manager goes through spells when the vultures gather," he said. "But I can assure you I shall sleep perfectly well tonight. If you start to worry, you panic and make silly decisions, and I'm certainly not going to do that with 41 games to go. The team's not useless, as we saw in the second half, and we'll get stronger. We will not be relegated."

Fighting talk, as befits the founding father of Wimbledon's Crazy Gang; whether beating the drop is deemed a fitting ambition as and when United come under new ownership remains to be seen.

The chairman, Reg Brealey, wants pounds 3.5m for his controlling shares. Mike McDonald, an engineering tycoon who previously tried to buy Manchester City, is vying with Stephen Hinchliffe, the retail magnate whose interests include Freeman, Hardy, Willis.

Although Bassett has achieved much while spending little, United's joyless muscularity is justifiable only as long as they are winning or in the Premiership. Albion, who have operated for years in similarly straitened circumstances, eschew cynicism, trusting in touch and movement, verve and vision. Alan Buckley is carrying on the work begun by Ossie Ardiles, whose key performers remain. They now defend less recklessly and build with a patience that would do Brazil proud.

Albion may be too lightweight, in squad depth and physique, for a sustained challenge. But their first-half fluidity, which Andy Hunt should have celebrated with a hat-trick, was a joy to behold. Paul Mardon showed the kind of anticipation and distribution that is about to make Alan Stubbs rich; Ian Hamilton clearly studied Glenn Hoddle in his pomp; and Bob Taylor's selflessness and skill put him on a different plane.

United, who summoned greater conviction after half- time, were simply plain. While Buckley maintained that no Bassett team would stay bottom, they are now the only club in the four divisions without a point. Leaving the Christmas revival until December could be dangerous indeed.

Goals: Burgess (13) 1-0; Hamilton (24) 2-0; Scott (88) 2-1; Hunt (89) 3-1.

West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Naylor; Burgess, Mardon, Raven (Ashcroft, 78), Edwards; Donovan, Hamilton, Coldicott, Gilbert; Taylor, Hunt. Substitutes not used: Rees, Reece (gk).

Sheffield United (3-5-2): Kelly; Gayle, Blount, Nilsen; Beard, Rogers (Hawes, 77), Hodges, Ward, Whitehouse; Veart (Scott, 77), Blake. Substitute not used: Mercer (gk).

Referee: D Allison (Lancaster).