Football: Hoyland on hand to deny needy Oldham the winning points: Sheffield United's riposte scuppers their close rivals' best-laid plans while Luton pick up precious victory

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Oldham Athletic . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Sheffield United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

FOR THE second time in six days, Oldham endured the frustration of taking the lead against opponents from Sheffield, but failing to hold on to the three points they needed for their relegation battle.

To the travelling United fans a draw was almost as good as a victory. With a two-point lead over Oldham, a match more to play and the best goal difference of any of the clubs in danger, Bramall Lane's escape artists are favourites to do it again, while Oldham face a tougher task than ever to avoid the drop.

For much of last night's game it seemed that the return of Andy Ritchie to the Oldham side after an injury-plagued season was going to be the boost they needed.

Not only did the stubble-headed veteran put them ahead in the 10th minute, with only his second goal of the season, his shrewd distribution, the only cool, aesthetic pleasure of a hot-tempered match, frequently opened up the Sheffield defence in a way that threatened further goals.

Even after Jamie Hoyland's equaliser two minutes before half- time, Oldham still looked to be in the process of earning victory. That they failed to do so owed much to a remarkable turn-around in the fortunes of the Sheffield United goalkeeper.

Alan Kelly, a Wembley hero in United's FA Cup semi-final defeat, started this match as an Oldham benefactor. First, he dropped Gunnar Halle's routine centre to give Ritchie the chance for his side-footed flick into the net. Three minutes later he dropped a straightforward centre from Neil Poynton's corner and John Pemberton had to hack away.

Kelly made up for those early frailties with some marvellous saves later in the game. He denied Darren Beckford before half-time after Ritchie's pass had deflected invitingly into his fellow striker's path six yards out.

The nervous tension of the contest was underlined by the four bookings that punctuated the match. Craig Fleming, of Oldham, came first, followed by the Sheffield trio of Paul Rogers, Glyn Hodges and Pemberton.

The goal that made it a practical if not a moral victory for United belied the untidiness of much of their play. Paul Beesley's long, early cross was converted into a chance by an educated nod-down by Brian Deane and Hoyland, earlier denied when the referee had spotted a foul during the build-up, fired home cleanly.

The onus was on Oldham to throw everything at Sheffield. They did so, even to the extent of bringing on another talismanic figure from Boundary Park folklore in Roger Palmer. He almost made a crucial contact at the foot of the post in the dying minutes, but it was not to be a fairy-tale evening for him or Ritchie.

Sheffield came closest to a winner, when Dane Whitehouse had a goal ruled out for offside and Paul Gerrard saved from Hodges on another of their rare attacks.

There was no mistaking the fact, though, that a share of the points represented a productive evening's work for a team on the right bank of the narrow but deep ravine that will separate the saved from the doomed at the end of the season.

Oldham Athletic: Gerrard; Halle, Pointon, Henry (Palmer, 74), Jobson, Fleming, Adams, Ritchie, Beckford, Milligan, Bernard. Substitutes not used: Redmond, Keeley (gk).

Sheffield United: Kelly; Ward, Beesley, Hoyland, Gayle, Pemberton, Bradshaw, Rogers, Hodges, Deane, Whitehouse. Substitutes not used: Hartfield, Cork, Leighton (gk).

Referee: P Foakes (Clacton).

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE RELEGATION RUN-IN ----------------------------------------------------------------- PREMIER LEAGUE BOTTOM SIX P W D L F A Pts Ipswich . . . . . . . . . . .39 10 16 13 44 50 46 Crystal Palace. . . . . . . .37 10 14 13 45 55 44 Sheffield Utd . . . . . . . .37 11 9 17 44 47 42 Oldham. . . . . . . . . . . .38 10 10 18 54 65 40 Nottm Forest. . . . . . . . .38 10 9 19 39 56 39 Middlesbrough . . . . . . . .39 9 10 20 45 70 37 ----------------------------------------------------------------- REMAINING FIXTURES ----------------------------------------------------------------- IPSWICH TOWN: 19 April Norwich (h); 1 May Crystal Palace (a); 8 Nottingham Forest (h). CRYSTAL PALACE: Saturday Leeds United (a); 21 April Manchester United (h); 1 May Ipswich Town (h); 5 Manchester City (a); 8 Arsenal (a). SHEFFIELD UNITED: Saturday Blackburn Rovers (h); 21 April Sheffield Wednesday (a); 1 May Nottingham Forest (a); 4 Everton (a) 8 Chelsea (h). OLDHAM ATHLETIC: Saturday Tottenham Hotspur (a); 2 May Aston Villa (a); 5 Liverpool (h); 8 Southampton (h). NOTTINGHAM FOREST: Saturday: Wimbledon (a); 21 April Arsenal (a); 1 May Sheffield United (h); 8 Ipswich Town (a). MIDDLESBROUGH: 20 April Tottenham (h); 1 May Sheffield Wednesday (a); 8 Norwich City (h). -----------------------------------------------------------------

Maurice Malpas, the Dundee United defender, damaged knee ligaments in last night's 3-0 home defeat by Hibernian and is now unlikely to be available for Scotland's World Cup qualifier in Portugal on 28 April.

Palmer tackles pain barrier, page 31