Football: Blades lose the edge

Sheffield United 1 Fjortoft 41 Ipswich Town 1 Stockwell 78 A ttendance: 22,312
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The Independent Online
JAN AGE FJORTOFT'S last act as a Middlesbrough player was scoring the goal which set the Teessiders on the FA Cup route to Wembley at the expense of Hednesford Town.

The towering striker could see the twin towers beckoning as a Blade yesterday after striking the 41st-minute goal which looked like providing Howard Kendall's team with a lead to protect in the return leg of their First Division play-off semi-final on Wednesday night. But then, with 13 minutes left, time stood still for the home guard and Mick Stockwell took his chance to deprive Sheffield United of their hard-earned advantage.

The veteran Stockwell, Ipswich born and bred, could scarcely believe his good fortune as Geraint Williams fed the ball into the penalty area and Alan Kelly waited for the clearance that never came from his defenders. Stockwell was left with the simple task of shepherding the ball around the bewildered goalkeeper and tapping it into the net.

The 5,000 East Anglians behind the goal danced with delight. Howard Kendall was less impressed. "I want to have a good look at it on television," the United manager said. "I thought our defending was awful."

It was Kendall's first experience of the unique pressure of play-off football and despite the thunder and rain crashing down on Bramall Lane, he stood outside the home dug-out anxiously directing operations as best he could.

Having watched his team lose home and away to Ipswich during the course of the regular season, the former manager of the year was doubtless grateful to see his charges make a steady if unspectacular start before the threatening glint of sharpness started to appear in Fjortoft's play.

The Norwegian was at his incisive best when he struck four minutes before the break, turning Chris Swailes on the right edge of the six-yard box and then delivering the rapier finish past Richard Wright.

Fjortoft has plundered 11 goals now since his pounds 700,000 move and he should have provided at least the chance of a second for his new club in the 44th minute. However, when Williams sent him crashing to the ground, the referee Roy Pearson signalled for play to continue. With an assistant named DM Horlick, perhaps it was only to be expected that the officials were in somnolent mood.

"It was a clear penalty," Fjortoft insisted. "Even their players said so. But it wasn't given, so there's no point dwelling on it. I'm more disappointed with the way we defended in the second half."

Ipswich, having reduced their defensive ranks to three men, were the dominant force after the break and are now unbeaten in seven games. "We've done the job away from home," George Burley, the Ipswich manager, said. "But it's not going to be easy to finish it, even though we're at home on Wednesday. We start on an even footing. The fact that we beat them 3-1 at home in March means nothing. It's sudden death now."

It was left to Kendall to add the reminder that "it's only half-time" and Fjortoft, having scored his first goal in England at Portman Road, is still hopeful of following South Yorkshire's other Riverside rejects, John Hendrie and Paul Wilkinson, into a Premiership that may well be minus the big spending Boro in August.

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