Football: Royle reads between lines

Manchester City 0 Sheffield United 0
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The Independent Online
By Guy Hodgson

Manchester City 0 Sheffield United 0

THOSE musical anoraks of the 1960s who used to play Beatles records backwards to supposedly hear "Paul is dead" would have had a field day at Maine Road. The place was knee deep with not-so-hidden warnings.

"A message from the new chairman", the front page of the programme proclaimed, and immediately inside the reader was confronted with the words: "Don't Panic". Further in, an advertisement for "people on the move" featured a picture of Georgi Kinkladze (they could be more tactful). On the pitch the all-girl soul group Cleopatra were singing "Life Ain't Easy".

So many subliminal calls for help, City could keep psychologists busy for years, but that has been the case for 20 years. One day someone will write the headline "No crisis at Maine Road", but, no, not even the Sunday Sport would have the gall to print something that unbelievable.

At the moment there is more chance of meeting Elvis Presley queueing up to get in the Kippax than reading such a soothing message. Don't panic? Joe Royle should be charging round the dressing-room making Corporal Jones look like a statue of calm by comparison.

A minimum requirement if City are not going to drop into the Second Division is winning home matches, so Royle's assertion that this was a point won rather than two lost should be filed under "misguided optimism". For a start, you cannot see where a goal is going to come from.

United were weary after their FA Cup exertions; City were just, well, weary of life. Lee Bradbury had two chances - and no one who has studied his wretched lack of confidence will be surprised that he made a hash of both - while the visitors had only one shot of consequence, from Ian Rush. The rest was a wasteland enlivened only by a punch-up after 10 minutes, instigated by a dreadful tackle by Jamie Pollock.

Without Kinkladze to explore the unusual, City's one tactic was to hoof the ball into the area from corners, a ploy that foundered once Alan Kelly overcame initial and uncharacteristic hesitancy. The game screamed out for the Georgian, but, sadly, the voices are destined for unhearing ears.

Afterwards Royle said what everyone knows: Kinkladze will be leaving City soon. "He's not in the right frame of mind at the moment," he said, referring to the Georgian's dismay at the resignation of the erstwhile chairman, Francis Lee, who he regarded as a mentor. "He looks sullen and moody. The transfer speculation has got to him."

Kinkladze will go, almost certainly, to a foreign club, which will leave City bereft of guile and, in all probability, hope. Wins for Stoke, Bury, Tranmere and Huddersfield were daggers in their prospects for survival, although Royle had to stress the positive. "I've told the players: 'That's your base'. We can do more with the ball but they can't allow themselves to play worse than that." As one cynic added afterwards: "They couldn't be worse, could they?"

What is left but to play "Wonderwall". Backwards. I swear you can hear Liam Gallagher sing: "Please forgive us, Peter Swales".

Manchester City: Margetson; Jobson, Symons, Tskhadadze; Jeff Whitley, Wiekens (Brannan, 83), Pollock, Jim Whitley, Edghill; Bradbury (Dickov, 72), Rosler. Substitute not used: Heaney.

Sheffield United (3-5-2): Kelly; Holdsworth, Marker, Sandford; Borbokis (Devlin, 75), Stuart (Dellas, 47), Ford, Derry, Quinn; Marcello (Taylor, 77), Rush.

Bookings: Manchester City Symons, Pollock; Sheffield United Sandford.

Referee: R Pearson (Peterlee).

Attendance: 28,496.

Man of the match: Ford.