Football: Blake's escape clause

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The Independent Online
Sheffield United 2

Blake 63, 90

Newcastle United 0

Attendance: 29,013

A COMBINATION of passion and persistence brought Sheffield United an ecstatically greeted victory yesterday that could go a long way to ensuring they succeed once again in pulling off their annual escape act. Two goals by Nathan Blake were the least they deserved on an afternoon when they never let the testing circumstances of the occasion deflect them from their sense of purpose.

And there was much more to contend with than merely the implications of defeat, all too great a possibility against the third-best team in the country, fresh from sweeping aside Aston Villa.

Already missing the injured Brian Gayle, Sheffield suffered a further set-back after 15 minutes when they lost their defender David Tuttle with a twisted knee and were forced into some fairly drastic reorganisation to accommodate his replacement, Glyn Hodges.

Unscheduled though his arrival was, it did not take long for Hodges to suggest that he perhaps should have been on from the start. A series of exquisitely timed through balls created one chance after another for the Sheffield forwards, but Pavel Srnicek, in the Newcastle goal, either was not tested severely enough or was equal to the task when he was.

First Hodges crossed to Paul Rogers at the far post, but his header was gathered easily by Srnicek. Then Hodges' quick free-kick released Mitch Ward down the left and his cross found Jostein Flo in a promising position.

But the big Norwegian forward dithered and John Beresford scurried back to help Srnicek clear the danger.

Two more Hodges-inspired opportunities fell to Blake and Ward, but came to nothing.

Sheffield's ability to create chances was a source of encouragement, less so their ability to capitalise on them. And at the other end there were signs of panic whenever Newcastle gave the ball to Andy Cole.

After a rather passive first- half performance, Newcastle suddenly found the power and fluency that have made them one of the revelations of the season. Robert Lee jinked past two defenders but shot narrowly wide and, after 60 minutes, Sheffield had a lucky escape when Hodges back-headed the ball on to his own bar from a corner by Scott Sellars.

But just as Sheffield were looking their shakiest, they got the goal they had promised for so long, Blake rising to meet John Gannon's 63rd-minute corner and heading it just over the line before Srnicek could grapple the ball away.

Suddenly it was all going Sheffield's way, all the more so as the scores came in from the Leeds-Everton match and were flashed up on the Bramall Lane scoreboard to the general approval, you might say, of the home crowd.

Blake's second in the closing moments, a prod past Srnicek after he had chased down a long clearance out of defence and held off the challenge of Alan Neilson, only added to the delirium.