Football Commentary: Bassett's hounds homeward bound

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The Independent Online
ONE tie resolved, one locked in the stalest of stalemates. Quarter-final Saturday my backside, as Dave Bassett would say - with a capital A.

Television having turned the FA Cup into a three-day event, it was Arsenal who picked up their feet and high stepped into the last four. From League champions to dressage champions. Stroll on.

Blackburn and Sheffield United favoured the extended slog of the cross-country, and will be testing the pockets, not to mention the patience, of their followers with a replay after the most sterile of goalless draws.

By far the worst of the 80 matches I have seen this season left them to try again at Bramall Lane on 17 March when, if they can do no better, penalties will put everyone out of their misery. It might be better to put them down. They shoot horses, don't they?

Amazingly, ordeal by error appealed to some. Sheffield fans greeted the end of a non-event that produced just two worthwhile shots and one decent save with a joyful pitch invasion which would have been understandable had they been signalling their relief that the torment was over. Instead, they were merely confirming what most of us had suspected from the start. United had come for a draw, and got what they wanted.

At home they are a much more formidable proposition, and the odds now favour Bassett getting to the semi-finals for the first time.

Tedious though it was, the tie was further testimony to the alchemist's powers which saw Bassett's peers vote him their first manager of the year last season.

In the last round his tactical acumen saw a motley crew get the better of Manchester United, Ryan Giggs and all. On Saturday the Machiavellian 'Harry' was at it again, ensnaring the team that Jack bought with a five-man defence in which Jamie Hoyland was not so much sweeper as backstop.

Pretty it was not, but if Bassett's cut-price assortment overcome the millionaires in the replay, he will consider his methods fully vindicated. Whether any end justifies Saturday's means is a moot point, at best, but at least both sides were honest enough to admit that it had been turgid stuff, and happily consigned it to the mental dustbin.

The home fans, who paid good money to be bored rigid, may take a less sanguine view. Jack Walker certainly will. Blackburn's benevolent patron has stumped up pounds 12m to win things, not to go close, and is said to differ from Kenny Dalglish's view that 'the lads' will have had a good season, regardless of what happens in the next couple of months.

What seems increasingly likely to happen is that they will be left empty-handed. No longer in contention for the championship, their decline since losing Alan Shearer has been such that the two Sheffield teams, United and Wednesday, must be favoured to end their interest in the FA and Coca-Cola Cups.

Rovers' performance on Saturday was woefully short of imagination and variety. Faced with opponents preoccupied with defence, they were unable to find the width to outflank them or the subtlety to pick their way through the middle.

Roy Wegerle, whose flicks and feints had been Newcastle's undoing, was out of touch and no more than a peripheral figure, and Stuart Ripley, one of the most penetrative wingers in the country, was drawn inside too often to be effective.

Enough of all that. Miskick and rush scarcely merits serious analysis. 'Play football' came a plaintive cry towards the end of the first half - a despairing voice in a wilderness of dross.

Noises off tended to be more interesting than happenings on, a surreal atmosphere created by the building site behind one goal, where loudspeakers pump out crowd noises piped from the populated end. A nice idea in principle, it became farcical in practice, the sound system giving us more feedback than Jimi Hendrix to accompany the disembodied chants.

Out on the pitch there was even more discord, with Glyn Hodges in a minority of one in passing the ball with any accuracy.

United, despite their belt-and- braces deployment, contrived to create the lion's share of the chances, but poor Leo was on pauper's rations and the only save of consequence came two minutes from the end, when Tim Sherwood warmed Alan Kelly's hands from 25 yards.

Sherwood is suspended for the replay, as is Brian Deane. Would they be missed? Dalglish's comments caught the mood of the match. 'That's what squads are for.'

Were United now favourites? 'That's for the bookies, and they've never scored a goal for us or cost us one.' Thanks, Kenny.

At least 'Harry' is always good value. 'They'll miss Sherwood,' he said. 'He's a good player. I gave him his debut at Watford, and he was one of the few guys who had a go for me when I was there. Not many did. I wanted to buy him for Sheffield United. I went to the chairman and said: 'I'm interested in Sherwood at pounds 500,000 and a boy called Paul Rogers at Sutton United, who'll cost pounds 50,000'. He said: 'Go for Rogers'.'

Great stuff. They even gave him a microphone to do a spot for the crowd, which was fair enough. It was the only entertainment they had all afternoon.

Blackburn Rovers: Mimms; May, Dobson, Sherwood, Hendry, Moran, Ripley, Andersson (Atkins, 82), Wegerle, Newell, Wilcox. Substitute not used: Marker.

Sheffield United: Kelly; Gage, Whitehouse (Beesley, 69), Hoyland, Gayle, Pemberton, Carr (Cork, 87), Hartfield, Bryson, Deane, Hodges.

Referee: P Durkin (Portland).

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