It doesn't matter whether you're Real Madrid or Borrowash Victoria," said Neil Warnock, attempting to explain the ease with which Aston Villa were tossed aside. "If you are winning games, you feel more confident." The reservoirs of confidence at Villa Park are as dry as a miner's throat after an eight-hour shift. Their season effectively ended on the second Saturday in January, the moment the linesman failed to give an obvious offside decision to halt a move that finished with Andy Liddell hammering his shot through Thomas Sorensen's legs.
The Aston Villa defender Mark Delaney used all the obvious descriptions - "disgrace", "outrageous" and "ridiculous" to describe the fatal goal - but they would have been better employed to sum up his own side's lack of fight which was remarkable, especially for a team going a goal ahead against the run of play. Carlton Cole, who on this evidence is as likely to be asked to rejoin Chelsea as Kerry Dixon, managed to be persistently outjumped. The fact that, occasionally, this was by Alan Wright, who stands nearly a foot shorter, gives plenty of indication of Cole's laughable lack of commitment.
Liddell remarked with justice that in the wider picture the offside was irrelevant since Sheffield United were palpably the better team and, to emphasise it, he scored another legitimate goal two minutes later. But for Sorensen's keeping, United might have scored half a dozen against a Villa side that both on and off the field appears directionless.
They have not won an FA Cup fixture in four years and they departed the competition as they left the Carling Cup, beaten comprehensively by a Championship side. For their manager, David O'Leary, who has seen his side's results outside Birmingham collapse almost from the moment he signed a contract extension, there remains only the rather thankless task of the slow rebuild. Using the £6m that was supposed to have bought James Beattie on "three or four" players should test his judgement to the full, especially with Gavin McCann likely to be out for up to six weeks because of injury.
Warnock, by contrast, would be happy with a fraction of that. For too long, to quote one of his favourite phrases, the United manager has been "shopping at Woolworths". It seems hard to imagine that a city of the size and wealth of Sheffield cannot support a Premiership team but the lack of money at Bramall Lane has been a constant sore during Warnock's tenure. It said something that on the same afternoon Sheffield Wednesday attracted nearly 7,000 more spectators for a fixture against Swindon at Hillsborough than United did for a match that was supposedly dusted with glamour.
"I know it was on the BBC and the time of the kick-off [12.30pm] didn't help, but we should still have got 20,000," he confessed. "I am working my socks off and this does not give me a massive lift as a manager."
Those who had casually tuned in would have been impressed by what they saw; fast, incisive and imaginative passing, with Michael Tonge gliding through the gale that sometimes howled through Bramall Lane. It was allied to a willingness to shoot almost on sight - Sorensen had 15 saves to make during an afternoon of high winds, hard rain and expensive lessons.
Warnock has never been a man lacking in confidence. On Saturday afternoon, he claimed that Sheffield United were better than any of the three sides promoted to the Premiership last season.
"We are outsiders in the play-offs simply because of our lack of resources," he remarked. "On our wage bill, we should finish 10th or 12th but we are punching above our weight because the team has gelled together. In the Premiership we would hold our own but I knew that last year. We were better than the teams that went up. If I could have had Darren Huckerby, we would have done. If we had bought Huckerby and taken a gamble, it would have cost us £3m but we would now be in the Premiership. Take out Huckerby and we are better than Norwich. We are better than West Brom." On Saturday they were easily better than Aston Villa.
Goals: Barry 46 (0-1); Cullip 55 (1-1); Liddell 82 (2-1); Liddell 84 (3-1).
Sheffield United: (4-3-3) Kenny; Geary (Montgomery, h-t), Bromby, Cullip, Wright; Harley, Quinn (Thirlwell, 89), Jagielka; Liddell, Gray, Tonge (Cadamarteri, 90). Substitutes not used: Forte, Shaw.
Aston Villa: (4-4-2) Sorensen; Delaney, Mellberg, Ridgewell, Samuel; Solano (Davis, 67), McCann (Berson, 51), Hendrie, Barry; Cole (Moore, 78), Angel. Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), De La Cruz.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Booked: Villa: Berson.
Man of the match: Tonge.
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