Football: Blades show mettle

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Oldham Athletic. . . 1

Sheffield United. . .1

OLDHAM and Sheffield United, desperate for a win to help preserve their Premiership status, inflicted mutual damage on each other last night when they fought each other to a standstill. A draw will be considered two points lost by both teams.

United will be the happier after having to endure the last 18 minutes with only 10 men, the result of the goalkeeper, Simon Tracey, being sent off for a foul on Sean McCarthy. They went another place up the table above Ipswich but, nevertheless, they will go into Saturday's match at Chelsea glancing anxiously over their shoulders.

Indeed, this match posed more questions than provided answers as to who will accompany Swindon into the First Division. It was a dour struggle on a sandy bog of a pitch that probably would not have lingered in the memory long enough to survive a bus journey home had it not been for Tracey's dismissal.

Brian Gayle, the United captain, headed back too weakly and McCarthy had outstripped the defence when the goalkeeper tripped him a foot short of the area. It was undoubtedly a foul but whether the Oldham striker had a clear route to goal was in question.

This was a contest between seasoned escapologists, both of whom won their last three games last year to preserve their Premier League status. This time Oldham had their task made the harder by the Football Association's insistence that they complete their fixtures by Saturday. Four games in eight days was hardly ideal but as Joe Royle replied when he was pushed on the matter: 'Pressure? What's new?'

The pressure intensified for the home side after nine minutes when United took the lead. Nathan Blake had already suggested he might prove difficult to handle and this impression was confirmed when he laid the ball into Jostein Flo's path. The Norwegian striker hit the ball low but Paul Gerrard tipped the ball round the post.

The Oldham goalkeeper had excelled there but his positioning looked questionable at the resultant corner when he came half-heartedly for Dane Whitehouse's cross. He did not get there but Alan Cork did, sending a looping header over the defenders on the line.

Oldham equalised after 24 minutes when Graeme Sharp flicked on for Rick Holden. The Oldham winger normally operates on the left but, even though he was on the opposite flank, his cross was malevolent enough for Tracey to mishandle. Darren Beckford, who had given up the chase, renewed his run when he saw the error and stabbed in from close range.

The second half, as the fear of losing gripped, became the dour, ungiving affair normally associated with these battles. Flo had a header cleared off the Oldham line and Chris Makin grazed the United bar but these efforts were out of character for a game that hardly provided a compelling argument for either team's survival.

Oldham Athletic (4-3-3): Gerrard; Makin, Fleming, Jobson, Pointon; Milligan, Henry, Holden; Beckford, Sharp, McCarthy. Substitutes not used: Redmond, Brennan, Hallworth (gk).

Sheffield United (4-3-3): Tracey; Bradshaw, Gayle, Beesley, Nilsen; Rogers, Gannon, Whitehouse; Flo (Kelly, 72), Blake, Cork (Hodges, 67). Substitute not used: Hoyland.

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

----------------------------------------------------------------- BOTTOM SEVEN ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Tottenham. . . . 40 10 12 18 51 57 42 Southampton. . . 40 12 6 22 46 61 42 Sheff Utd. . . . 41 8 18 15 40 57 42 Ipswich. . . . . 41 9 15 17 35 58 42 Everton. . . . . 41 11 8 22 39 61 41 Oldham. . . . . .40 9 12 19 41 65 39 Swindon (R). . . 41 5 15 21 47 95 30 -----------------------------------------------------------------