Fulham tie a distraction for Clough's team
25 January ~ It is increasingly common to decry the importance of the FA Cup and Sunday's fourth round tie against Fulham could be classed as an unwelcome distraction for Sheffield United. Although many fans refuse to recognise it, the club are firmly locked in a relegation battle and the possibility of a second trip to the fourth tier of English football is a real risk. While many fans will point to the upturn in results and performances since Nigel Clough took over as manager, the reality is that things could hardly be any worse than they were under his predecessor David Weir.
Seventeen points from 13 games is form that, if maintained, ought to see United safe, but that depends on other teams at the bottom of a very tight League One table. Worryingly, despite the improvement, United find themselves outside the final relegation spot only on alphabetical order – almost exactly where they were when Clough took over. With three of the four teams below them playing two league games before the Blades' next league fixture, against Peterborough on Wednesday night, they could find themselves firmly ensconced in the drop zone, albeit with games in hand.
The brittle confidence in the team is demonstrated by the last three league results, losing away at Walsall and Notts County after being a goal up and then relinquishing a two-goal lead in the home draw with Bradford City last Saturday.
United average a goal a game in the league and their limited forward threat is best exemplified by the fact that their top goalscorer is central defender Harry Maguire with just six goals. At the other end of the pitch, Maguire is part of a back four that kept the most clean sheets in the division last season, yet look capable of making mistakes every game this season.
In the Cup it has been a different story and the nervousness that has dogged the side's league performances vanished as the team played without fear at Villa Park in the third round, fully deserving their 2-1 victory. Maybe this and the expected changes to the Fulham side have led to the bookmakers offering closely matched odds on home and away wins. The fact BT Sport cameras are in town adds to the expectation and hope of an upset.
The FA Cup and the atmosphere that cup runs create has provided many special days and nights for United fans in the past, yet sadly a defeat against the Cottagers won't be the disappointment it might be for the TV companies and neutrals. In fact many of us would swap it for a guaranteed three points against Peterborough three days later. Ian Rands