Football: Sinking feeling for desperate City

Manchester City 0 Sheffield United 0 Attendance: 28,496
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AFTER a week of politics and poison, a football match broke out at Maine Road yesterday. It was not a very good one; Manchester City were woefully short of guile, Sheffield United seemed to have half a mind on their FA Cup semi-final against Newcastle and the other half reflecting on the glory of getting there. But it took a few eyes off the boardroom for an afternoon, for both sides. "I'm going to have a chat with my chairman this week," Steve Thompson, the United manager, said. "If I can find one." City have one spare.

By City folklore, any point won at home is a point gained, but at season's end, the loss of two might prove of greater significance. City are in a desperate way, just a cigarette paper off the bottom of the First Division, which is a travesty for a club of such lofty ambitions and a reflection of years of neglect. Sheffield ventured little, City gained little more. Even for a club weaned on failure, the consequences of defeat were too terrible to contemplate. Gates of 27,000 in the Nationwide Second Division? Awaydays to Torquay United? Worse than ridicule would flow down the streets of Manchester - United fans might stoop to pity them.

"It wasn't always pretty," Joe Royle, the City manager, said. "Everyone had a go and we defended soundly. It was the sort of base performance we will need to the end of the season."

Royle, whose "dogs of war" label for his combative midfield rebounded on him at Everton, is fashioning a side in his own uncompromising image. The purchase of Jamie Pollock for pounds 1m is a reflection of that. The former Bolton midfielder could have been sent off after 18 minutes, his scything challenge on Lee Sandford prompting a minor skirmish and a booking. It probably should have been worse - the booking, not the skirmish.

All a tempestuous week needed was a goal. The departure of Francis Lee and the ending of Manchester United's European dream hardly offered a new dawn, but allowed a rare gloat. The bad news was that the new chairman, David Bernstein, far from promising massive new finance, vowed to cut the wage bill, starting with the biggest luxury of the lot. And we are not talking Georgi Kinkladze's Ferrari either, but the idolised Georgian international himself.

Two defeats - by Oxford and Port Vale - had ended the mini-run of two successive wins generated by Royle's arrival. But the sight of a United team wearing red seemed to concentrate City minds. There was no shortage of effort nor possession and Jim Whitley, the elder, more gifted twin of his brother Jeff, showed some sure touches in midfield. Their misfortune was that the two best chances of the first half fell to the hapless Lee Bradbury, who has yet to find his feet at Maine Road. A header from eight yards flashed wide, a miskick from five yards brought predictable groans. Substituted midway through the second half, Bradbury could hardly wait to get off the pitch.

Uwe Rosler looked brighter, but hit the bar from an acute angle after a mix-up in the Sheffield defence in the first half and had a rasping close-range drive turned away by Alan Kelly shortly after half-time. Royle shuffled the pack midway through the second half, bringing the more mobile Paul Dickov on for Bradbury. Bradbury, his ordeal over, could not wait to reach the touchline.

The niggling fear for the City loyalists, born of good recent evidence, was of a sneaked late winner for United. Ten home defeats in one season tend to promote such negativity. Had not Marcelo, United's Brazilian-born Portuguese striker, not miscontrolled a through ball when a couple of yards clear of the City backline the nightmare would have been complete.

The finale was a tale of increasingly desperate City pressure and a series of spurned half-chances. A whipped-in cross by Jim Whitley went begging, Dickov fell theatrically in the penalty area under a challenge from Holdsworth, while Gareth Taylor rose on the penalty spot to head a long-range cross narrowly over the bar for United. Seven more games remain for City to restore some sense of stability to their parlous state. "An honest performance," Royle concluded. The season closer at Stoke is beginning to take on the look of Armageddon.