Old Trafford may yet regret slip of the Tonge

FA Cup: Elegant midfielder aims to prove cream rises to top
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The Independent Football

Neil Warnock's description of his Sheffield United team as "probably a bit too nice" should perhaps be pigeon-holed as one of this canny manager's motivational ploys. Especially so during preparations for this afternoon's FA Cup fourth-round replay against West Ham United - with the rich prospect of a fifth-round visit to Arsenal awaiting the winners.

Neil Warnock's description of his Sheffield United team as "probably a bit too nice" should perhaps be pigeon-holed as one of this canny manager's motivational ploys. Especially so during preparations for this afternoon's FA Cup fourth-round replay against West Ham United - with the rich prospect of a fifth-round visit to Arsenal awaiting the winners.

But you see what he means when you meet Michael Tonge. Even a growth of gingerish designer stubble fails to convert niceness to meanness in the case of Sheffield's star midfielder, a lad of just 21 who has already started more than 160 games for the Bramall Lane club since Manchester United decided that the 16-year-old Tonge wouldn't make it at Old Trafford.

Though his role is one of creator rather than spoiler, Tonge concedes. "I know what the gaffer is saying, that we need to be tough in the right areas." That said, Tonge's opinion is that Sheffield "have the right blend now".

Tonge's contribution is a crucial ingredient in that blend. Since Michael Brown left for Tottenham, Tonge has assumed control of the midfield, and done it to such stunning effect that he could end up following his old team-mate into the Premiership. Sheffield United have put a ban on Tonge discussing these approaches, but the names of Aston Villa, Charlton and Portsmouth have been men-tioned as interested parties.

So is such interest a compliment or a distraction? "I don't really take much notice, to be honest," says Tonge. "I just get on with playing for Sheffield United. Obviously I want to get into the Premiership, but with this club. For the last three seasons we have nearly done it, so obviously we are heading in the right direction."

To Warnock, the interest in his ace midfielder is obvious. "It is no surprise to me. When you see the money some other players are going for, Michael has had so many games for us that he has great experience, although still a young lad."

Though he is too nice to say it, Tonge could not be blamed for mouthing "told you so" in the direction of Old Trafford when he was capped for England Under-21s and as he continues to expand his reputation with each game in the Championship and FA Cup. Although a Manchester City supporter from the time he learnt the first lines of "Blue Moon", the Leigh-born Tonge was snapped up by United at the age of nine. His release at 16 hurt. "They didn't feel I was ready to play in their scholarship team, or however they put it. It was a strange feeling but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. If I hadn't left there, I wouldn't be in the situation I am now. I certainly wouldn't have played that many games for them.

"So I came across to Sheffield. For a 16-year-old, moving home was daunting at first, but once I had settled in it made me that bit more determined to do well. When you get a knock-back, you want to bounce back and prove you are good enough."

Tonge has certainly done that. Last season he played in all Sheffield United's 46 League games, and the response from opposing teams was predictable after a 2002-03 season in which United got to the semi-finals of both cups and narrowly missed out on promotion.

As Warnock explained: "He had a very exciting season two years ago when Michael Brown was also playing for us, and then Brown left and we only had him [Tonge] as the creator, so he was doubly marked last season and was unfairly criticised as a result. This year, because we now have other players for the opposition to worry about, Michael has had a bit more freedom and has been quite outstanding. The last few weeks are probably the best he has ever played in his career."

Tonge acknowledges that "last season people had become more aware of me, they were getting a bit tighter on me and it was difficult at first. You have to try and work round that, and sometimes you can get a bit frustrated. But with the team playing good football it has been easier to get involved. With the long ball it is easier to be marked, whereas this season we have got it down and played, so teams don't find it so easy to get so close."

An early fan of Paul Gascoigne, Tonge has attempted to assimilate the best of Gazza into his own style, "the ability to get forward, to be creative and a bit of a dribbler". Against Aston Villa in the last round, Tonge was all of these things in a fine performance.

He feels the Cup lends an edge to the team. "It has a lot to do with team spirit. When we have played Premiership sides in the last couple of seasons we have felt we had a point to prove, not only to everyone else but to ourselves."

Having suffered a blip in the League, with just two goals in their past four games and not a win since defeating Villa, Sheffield will be keen to eliminate West Ham and earn another visit to Highbury. It was there, in April 2003, that an accidental block of Tonge by the referee, Graham Poll, prevented a possible score. Worse, it released Arsenal for the game's winner and a place in the Cup final.

"If we get that far again, hopefully the luck will be with us this time," smiles Tonge. Warnock hopes so. "I've told them all, 'Let's do something different, let's win the Cup this year'."

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