Thomas red card lets Blades fight back

On a day when most of the fancied sides in the Nationwide First Division promotion race dropped points, the mid-table hopefuls accepted the bounty and closed ranks with the pacemakers so effectively that 13th-placed Preston North End are now only five points off a play-off place.

The ability of lowly sides to surprise was best illustrated at Stoke City, where the Potters swept into a 2-0 half-time lead over Sheffield United, Gifton Noel-Williams and Ade Akinbiyi on target. "I was quite relieved we were only two goals down at half-time," Neil Warnock, the Blades' manager, admitted.

But the game turned when Stoke had Wayne Thomas sent off at the start of the second half. Robert Kozluk pulled a goal back in the 52nd minute and an injury-time penalty by Jack Lester, who had been fouled, earned the Blades a 2-2 draw. "That could prove to be our best point of the season," Warnock felt. "I really think it could get us back on track."

After four matches West Ham United still await their first win under new manager Alan Pardew following a 1-1 draw at Coventry City. Jermain Defoe put the Hammers ahead after 15 minutes, capitalising on a slip by the Sky Blues' player-manager, Gary McAllister, back in the line-up after compassionate leave. But Graham Barrett levelled from close range seven minutes before half-time to spare his manager's blushes.

"We should have won that game, especially after having taken the lead," Pardew thought. "But we just didn't seem to keep the ball very well and all in all it was a bit of a mish-mash."

Nottingham Forest and Millwall both had claims as promotion contenders when they met at the New Den. The Lions had more bite and took the three points when Kevin Braniff, on as substitute for Noel Whelan, scored the game's only goal on the stroke of half-time. The Lions are a point off the top six. It was the penultimate match in charge for the temporary management team of Dennis Wise and Ray Wilkins.

"It's sad to be talking about leaving because I've had great fun here," Wilkins said. He has "voiced an interest in the permanent position but won't stay on in a temporary role."

Joe Royle was named First Division manager of the month and his Ipswich Town side duly succumbed to the award's curse by losing a thrilling match against Gillingham, 4-3 at Portman Road. The Gills led 1-0 and 3-1, but Town got back to 3-3. Three minutes into injury time Mark Saunders got the Kent club's winner. "I didn't trust our defence from the first minute," Royle said. "It was hard to name a single defender who showed his best form. When you concede four at home you can hardly complain about losing."

Crewe Alexandra's Steve Jones was on target at Gresty Road as Dario Gradi's side beat Reading 1-0. Alex are 12th but only four points below the play-offs. Cardiff City missed a chance to get closer to the top six when they were held 1-1 by Burnley at Turf Moor. The Bluebirds' striker, Robert Earnshaw, scored his 17th goal of the season to earn the point.

Preston's Ricardo Fuller starts a three-match ban but it comes a game too late for Derby County. Fuller won a penalty for North End's first goal at Deepdale, set up David Healy for the second and scored the third himself. "I think 3-0 flattered us a little," Craig Brown, Preston's manager, said, "but we have got the hang of clean sheets now."

At the bottom, Watford eased away from the bottom three when they beat Rotherham 1-0 at Vicarage Road and Nigel Reo-Coker scored as Wimbledon came from a goal down to beat Bradford City 2-1, their first win in their new Milton Keynes home.

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