Football Commentary: Maine Road signposts point to the drop: Horton hanging on at Manchester City

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The Independent Online
TEN games to go - less for some - and the Great Divide is getting wider. With 41 points separating them, the Mancunian neighbours are not so much detached as worlds apart - on Easy Street and Skid Row.

While United peer down from the commanding heights of the Premiership, and stage an open day to publicise their appearance at Wembley on Sunday, over at Maine Road it is open season on everyone associated with City's continuing decline. Peter Swales was the first victim, others are sure to follow, with Brian Horton's managership in extreme jeopardy.

Saturday's palsied performance at home to Sheffield United will have done nothing for his security at a time when the club's new owners are known to be pondering the alternatives. Sheffield United, next to bottom and as mediocre as their position would suggest, had much the better of a low grade goalless draw which left City's suffering supporters howling their disapproval.

Francis Lee, a folk hero after buying out Swales, must be wondering what he let himself in for. He has spent money on the team, as he promised he would, and is prepared to make more available in advance of Thursday's transfer deadline, but doubts about Horton's judgement in the market have seen canny Franny adopt a more hands-on approach, and any signing this week will be at his instigation.

Nick 'Son of Mike' Summerbee of Swindon Town and Liverpool's Nigel Clough are under consideration at pounds 2m apiece - strange choices, both. Neither is the sort of battle-hardened scrapper City need if they are to claw their way out of trouble and a couple of reliable defenders would seem to be a more sensible priority.

Slow and square at the back, City were embarrassed time and again by the pacy aggression of Nathan Blake, who could be a real find. Horton asked about the strapping young striker, but jibbed at the asking price. Dave Bassett gave Cardiff their pounds 500,000 and appears to have come up with another of the lower division bargains that are his stock in trade.

City, in contrast, bought dear and old. Blake is 22, and full of promise and ambition. Paul Walsh, nine years older, was past his sell-by date and overpriced at pounds 750,000. He has never been a prolific goalscorer, and is hardly likely to become one now.

If Walsh is a dodgy buy, Alan Kernaghan is a giant albatross threatening to break Horton's neck. Ponderous and error prone, he was passed at will by the bustling Blake and at pounds 1.6m the centre-half for Middlesbrough looks like the sort of mistake that gets managers the sack.

Unable to obtain value for money at home, City turned to Germany and borrowed Uwe Rosler, a striker from Dynamo Dresden, and Steffen Karl, a midfielder Borussia Dortmund value at pounds 750,000. Both come blessed with the polished technique one associates with their fatherland, but will be hard pressed to put it to good use in the hurly-burly of the relegation dogfight, and on a Maine Road mud heap which is deteriorating almost as fast as the team.

Judgement on these latest imports must be suspended until they get a decent surface on which to parade their skills.

City attempted to compensate for a chronic shortage of pace and width by switching their one flyer, Terry Phelan, from left-back to the left side of midfield where, as an ersatz winger, he was their one real success.

Elsewhere, David Rocastle continues to show fleeting flashes of his mercurial talent, but Steve McMahon looks a spent force at the hub of the team, Walsh is a lightweight, in every sense, and the defence as a unit turns as smartly as a laden supertanker. If they stay up, it will be because of the shortcomings of others.

United's own plight is becoming increasingly desperate, yet they were always the better side and only the poverty of their finishing denied them the three points they came looking for.

Karl and Phelan demanded useful saves from Alan Kelly, but greater speed, in thought as well as movement, gave the Blades a sharper cutting edge, and Blake might have won it with any one of three second-half chances.

The football having offered nothing to speak of, the post-match discussion focused on Tony Coton's late foray out of his penalty area to floor Blake. Peter Schmeichel had been sent off in similar circumstances, but Alan Gunn was the referee whose lenient treatment of Mark Bosnich caused a furore in Aston Villa's Coca-Cola Cup semi- final with Tranmere Rovers and here, to general disbelief, he simply waved play on. Bassett was not best pleased. 'If it had happened to Manchester United,' he said, 'the game would probably have been called off and United awarded a victory, but we're not Manchester United.'

Protest registered, 'unhappy Harry' went on to suggest that much of the inconsistency in refereeing could be remedied by taking such decisions out of their hands.

'The game should be stopped,' he said, 'and an independent official should study a video playback before saying whether or not a player should be sent off.' Food for thought - even if Wimbledon versus Sheffield United might last all weekend.

Horton had other things on his mind. He knows Lee is casting covetous eyes towards Joe Royle and Bruce Rioch, and looked and sounded like a man stretched to breaking point.

'Of course I'm handling the pressure all right,' he said - his tone telling an entirely different story. 'Everyone keeps asking how I am. Why? I'm not ill or going senile.'

He agreed it had not been a good game and that City were not playing well. 'I know one point from a game like this is not enough. All I can do is ask the players to keep going, but it's hard because everyone is so apprehensive.' The manager with more reason than most.

At least there was the derby to look forward to, someone ventured. 'Yes,' came a stage whisper from the back, 'but who wants bloody Stockport here.'

Manchester City (4-4-2): Coton; Hill, Vonk, Kernaghan, Brightwell; Rocastle, McMahon, Karl, Phelan; Walsh, Rosler (Griffiths, 76). Substitutes not used: Dibble (gk), Lomas.

Sheffield United (4-4-2): Kelly; Gage, Gayle, Tuttle, Beesley; Carr, Rogers, Gannon, Whitehouse; Blake, Flo. Substitutes not used: Bradshaw, Davison, Tracey (gk).

Referee: A Gunn (South Chailey, Sussex).

(Photograph omitted)

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