Football: Tale of Cup fever and two keepers

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The Independent Online
MY mother-in-law has many qualities but she has not previously been noted as a fount of football knowledge. Until Saturday, that is, when she had all the key facts about her local team at her fingertips. "We've won seven games in a row, we're going to win the cup," she said with unshakeable confidence.

Such is the power of the FA Cup fever, it can infect the most unlikely folk. There were further symptoms elsewhere in Coventry. The local paper went to the extravagance of hiring a light aircraft to trail a good luck message over their Highfield Road ground, inside it one fan had dug out a faded and stretched "Wembley 1987'' T-shirt and others pumped up several thousand sky-blue-and-white balloons.

Since City's winning run was brought to an unexpected halt by this 1- 1 draw with a Sheffield United side which belied the club's internal chaos, this particular outbreak may be abating. However, somewhere in Sheffield, a previously resistant soul is no doubt telling surprised relatives that United "are on course for their first final since 1936".

First they will have to beat Coventry in tomorrow week's replay which will not be easy. On Saturday the Blades' defence was continually sliced open and only the woodwork, poor finishing and the outstanding goalkeeping of Alan Kelly prevented a drubbing.

Not that the outfield players were without merit. They worked tremendously hard and played with great spirit considering the club's midweek upheaval and recent player sales. In the second half, when Graham Stuart and Vassilis Borbokis provided some width, they played some nice football. However, with almost every decent striker sold, injured or cup-tied they lacked an attacking edge and, Kelly's goalkeeping apart, the most impressive thing about United was their supporters.

Yet, incredibly, having equalised in first-half injury-time with their first decent attempt, they should have won in second-half injury-time with their second. That would have been harsh on Coventry for whom Paul Telfer, George Boateng and Dion Dublin were outstanding. It would have been especially cruel on Steve Ogrizovic.

Oggy, the last surviving member of the 1987 team, had been recalled for the first time since December in the absence of the injured Marcus Hedman. For 91 minutes he was largely a spectator, powerless to stop Marcelo's equaliser, fired in off the post after Dublin's missed tackle, but otherwise safely handling the loose balls that came his way. Then, with Coventry pressing for a winner, a United clearance landed in his half. The veteran keeper, who rarely leaves his six-yard box these days, wandered upfield towards it, hesitated as David Burrows made to come across, then rushed to clear as it became evident his team-mate was staying put.

Petr Katchuro blocked the kick and the Belarus striker, fresh after just 10 minutes involvement, looked certain to roll the rebound into the empty net. But somehow the 15 stone 40-year-old found the energy to sprint back 35 yards and block. As he huffed and puffed afterwards he mentally thanked his kids for persuading him to give up smoking six months ago. "I feared the worst," he admitted, "it's the longest I've run in ages.''

"It was like Chariots of Fire," said Gordon Strachan who blamed Burrows. The race will certainly live in the memory, and seemed to be in slow motion, but it was more Keystone Cops than Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams.

The other tale to be added to the cup's folklore was Steve Thompson's, the stand-in United manager. Sheffield-born and an apprentice at Bramall Lane he was released at 18 and briefly, but unsuccessfully, returned at 34. A week ago he was reserve team manager, in a week's time he could be out of work (or back with Colin Murphy at Lincoln). This was his day in the sun and it may lead to something more.

Kelly, too, might at last find the recognition that has threatened to come his way for years. In the days before top flight managers concentrated on signing giants from overseas (Kelly's height is recorded at an unlikely 6ft 2in) he would be at one of the country's leading clubs. There have been bouts of speculation and he has had the occasional contract wrangle with United but would not be committed on his future saying only that he was "very happy'' at Bramall Lane. At 29 he still has a few years ahead of him - look at Oggy.

Kelly's first stunning save was from Noel Whelan's 28th-minute header, a low right-handed effort off balance. Whelan astonishingly missed the rebound and promptly kicked the post with a venom usually reserved for shop windows.

Coventry, having started as if unnerved by being overwhelming favourites, were now well on top and, four minutes later, Gavin Strachan burst into the box like his father used to and was chopped down by Nicky Marker. Dublin converted his fifth penalty in six home games and his 19th goal this season.

Boateng volleyed over before Marcelo, a Portuguese Brazilian, equalised. Kelly then brilliantly denied Darren Huckerby - who also hit the post - Boateng and Gary Breen while Viorel Moldovan missed two good chances and Whelan one.

Then came Oggy's dash. Afterwards he wondered aloud if it meant City were fated to win the cup. So did Kelly when talking of Whelan's miss. Amazing, after 126 years the old pot still makes people believe such superstitious rubbish.

I wonder which one is right.

Goals: Dublin (pen) (33) 1-0; Marcelo (45) 1-1.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic; Nilsson, Breen, Dublin, Burrows; Telfer, Strachan (Solvedt, 76), Boateng, Whelan; Moldovan (Hall, 78) Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Howie (gk), Shaw, Haworth.

Sheffield United (4-4-2): Kelly; Short (Beard, 46), Holdsworth, Sandford, Quinn; Borbokis, Marker, Ford, Stuart; Taylor, Marcelo (Katchuro, 80). Substitutes not used: Tracey (gk), Dellos, Ludlam.

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).

Booked: Coventry: Boeteng. Sheffield United: Marker.

Man of the match: Kelly.

Attendance: 23,084.