THE CUT, the final and most cruel cut of all, had come where we least expected it and Dave Bassett was struggling to take it in. His gaze, a study in colossal disappointment, was fixed, appropriately, downwards but on nothing in particular. It was hard for him to accept; it was hard for us dispassionate observers who were there as Sheffield United fell stunningly out of the Premier League.
History will record that Bassett's Blades perished in the fires of one man's determination to prove his fitness for the FA Cup final. What it cannot convey is the drama and critical turn of events that immediately prefaced Mark Stein's injury-time goal which pushed them over the edge.
With little more than 20 minutes remaining United were effectively two places off the dropping zone. Everton were losing, Oldham and Ipswich were not winning. United were and as sweetly as Chelsea's likely line-up for Wembley were passing the ball, surely with the big one seven days away they would happily now see out time?
Then Everton grabbed an equaliser and so, too, did Chelsea. No need for outright panic yet. It still required another Goodison goal and one more at the Bridge to signal the worst for Sheffield while there was always the possibility that Ipswich would not hold out forever at Blackburn. This Bassett bunch, fighters to a man, seasoned escapees and with only one defeat in 12 games would not fold. Would they?
The fateful delusion caught hold, the consequences catastrophic. Dennis Wise, wide on the left, was given room to make his cross count and advancing to meet it was, of all people, Glenn Hoddle, a substitute for the last quarter and desperate that his team would not succumb to a second successive home defeat before they faced Manchester United.
'I don't normally get myself into the centre-forward position, in fact I get a nosebleed that far upfield,' Hoddle said. 'I told Mark to pull off to the back post and I knew that if I could get a touch on it his techniques in the penalty area are that good he would score.'
In that split second Stein emphatically made his point and a whole season, from Bassett's viewpoint, 'had gone up in smoke'.
The reality of Sheffield's plight will quickly have given way to recriminations but Bassett should not be hounded for their demise. Before the season's start he had warned of the repercussions of Brian Deane's departure to Leeds. He had mined successfully again at the cheaper end of the transfer market and he so nearly pulled it off for a fourth successive year.
'There's no big question mark about it,' he said in response to his future. 'I have one year of my contract to go but whether the chairman decides to sack me is another matter. That last-minute goal will live with me forever but I'm not going to commit suicide.'
Goals: Flo (30) 0-1; Kjeldbjerg (58) 1-1; Hodges (60) 1-2; Stein (77) 2-2; Stein (90) 3-2.
Chelsea (4-4-2): Kharin; Clarke, Johnsen, Kjeldbjerg, Sinclair; Burley (Hoddle, 63), Newton, Peacock, Wise; Spencer, Stein. Substitutes not used: Cascarino, Hitchcock (gk).
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Tracey; Bradshaw, Gayle, Nilsen, Whitehouse; Ward, Rogers, Gannon, Hodges; Flo, Blake. Substitutes not used: Scott, Hoyland, Kelly (gk).
Referee: K Cooper (Pontypridd).
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