Warnock brings in experience to back Blades' title tilt

First Division: Sheffield United aim to atone for play-off final disappointment but face remarkable number of credible rivals for promotion
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The Independent Football

After a 2002-03 season that included semi-final appearances in both of the major cup competitions and a top-six position maintained for the majority of the season, Sheffield United could not have chosen a worse moment to produce their limpest performance.

In the First Division play-off final at the Millennium Stadium, a match in which they were confident of victory despite the gathering momentum of opponents Wolverhampton Wanderers, they suddenly had the look of a spent force. It was as if the emotional and physical energy expended in beating Nottingham Forest to get to Cardiff had left the fuel tank completely empty.

Their manager, Neil Warnock, has kept his mind from drifting towards thoughts of what might have been with a summer of frenetic transfer activity that should ensure United's season does have a fresh feel when it opens against Gillingham this afternoon. Indeed, there are grounds for tipping his side as title contenders.

Warnock has been the First Division's busiest manager by far, shipping out 15 players and bringing in nine. Ashley Ward, the 32-year-old striker released by Bradford City, is the latest addition, joining 33-year-old Mark Rankine and 35-year-old Mike Whitlow in adding extra experience to a squad well blessed with talent at the other end of the age scale.

The defender Chris Morgan, from Barnsley, and ex-Nottingham Forest striker Jack Lester are two more solid signings. Just as significant is the continuing presence at Bramall Lane of Michael Brown, who had been widely tipped for a summer move to the Premiership, as well as the precociously talented 20-year-olds, Michael Tonge and Phil Jagielka.

"We had a strong squad last season but if we lacked anything at some points it was a bit more leadership on the pitch," Warnock said. The veteran Stuart McCall provided it for much of the season but when he was injured towards the end, Warnock felt the side lost something. Still restricted by a tight budget, Warnock's only cash purchase has been the young Oldham defender Chris Armstrong, for £100,000.

Money is not plentiful anywhere in the division, which will mean another season of open competition. It is not difficult to name 10 sides with a decent chance of making the play-offs, of which Sheffield United, Ipswich, Reading, West Bromwich and West Ham all have reason to set their expectations higher.

But what money has been spent is likely to be important. West Bromwich have spent the most, their manager, Gary Megson, investing £750,000 in the highly rated Crewe striker Rob Hulse, a further £520,000 in the Ipswich defender Thomas Gaardsoe and £400,000 in Sunderland's Bernt Haas.

West Ham, who have raised more than £18m in sales with perhaps more to come yet, have reinvested only a fraction, but Glenn Roeder's £500,000 outlay on Tottenham's Matthew Etherington as part of the Frédéric Kanouté deal plus his bargain £285,000 purchase of the free-scoring Wimbledon and Ireland striker David Connolly, is still enough to keep the Hammers in the frame.

Reading, who had the misfortune to run into Wolves at the first play-off hurdle last May, have quietly strengthened their position with the acquisition of two proven goalscorers in Shaun Goater and Scott Murray, who cost £1.15m between them.

Stricken Ipswich, of course, have been unable to spend, although Joe Royle, who worked wonders in rescuing the Suffolk side from last season's terrible start, has still picked up a couple of useful defenders in George Santos and Drissa Diallo, both on free transfers.

Nottingham Forest supporters have been disappointed not to see more new faces after the high earners Riccardo Scimeca, Jim Brennan, Jon Hjelde, Lester and Tony Vaughan were cut from the wages bill. Danny Sonner and Brynjar Gunnarsson look shrewd free signings by the manager, Paul Hart, who also has the talented Manchester United midfielder Michael Stewart on loan for the season, but a £4,000-a-week wage cap has made it difficult for him to find cover for strikers David Johnson and Marlon Harewood.

Coventry, with a substantially revamped squad, may be the dark horses, but relegated Sunderland's wholesale changes will not make it any easier for Mick McCarthy to conjure the Wearsiders' first league win since 15 December. Like Norwich, they might find a tilt at the play-offs to be their limit, although their troubles are at least not as deep yet as those facing Derby, whose pared-down squad may struggle to stay clear of the relegation places.

The Second Division champions, Wigan, and play-off winners, Cardiff, should survive at the higher level, but Crewe, the other promoted side, may struggle after parting with Hulse, Rodney Jack and David Walton. Paul Merson may keep Walsall out of trouble this time, but troubled Wimbledon may well find relegation adding to their worries.