There is only one SuperKev in our lives’ now. We’ll never forget the earlier version who gave us so much joy over four years (although I am trying hard to forget his somewhat dubious commitment over the next two years). But on Saturday afternoon, as they had done on Tuesday night, the SuperKev chants could only be for one man – Super Kevin Kyle. Two stunningly important headers mean we’ve taken 6 points out of the weeks’ two games instead of two. How important might that be come the end of the season?
Isn’t it nice actually enjoying football again? Look, we’re going to get beat on numerous occasions this season – sometimes because the other team play better, sometimes because we get things wrong. But we can cope with that – if we feel the team are trying (which they really are at the moment) and we feel the next win is likely to be not too far into the distant future. Since the Forest and Millwall games (that I regard as belonging to last season) and the final clearout of those players who disgraced our shirt, we have been on one hell of a run. Stoke was an aberration – we just got the shape of the team wrong from the start and Mick Mac has clearly learned from that; Derby was an away draw but was in fact one of our best performances and we should have got the three points. All this meant that, travelling to Sheff U I was fairly worried we would be coming away with nothing but I was still looking forward to the match.
Despite Bradford being a little closer, Sheff U is the match that feels closest to being a derby this season. As it is a 130 mile trip for the NE based lads and lasses mind that is sort of like saying Spurs-Aston Villa is a “derby”. The 5,000 strong travelling red and white army helped make it feel like a special occasion.
We started with the same team as we had against Ipswich. Thornton was back from suspension but quite rightly only had a place on the bench. We saw against Stoke that Thornton was not the man to hold the middle in a scrap. I guess we could have brought in Sean for Butler but on balance I think Mick Mac probably got it right. After being one of Whitley’s biggest critics and him having a good game against the Ippos I was on Whitley-watch, hoping to see lots of good things about him. I had half-thought we might see Alan Quinn and was surprised that he wasn’t even on the bench but apparently he was suspended. Football trivia quiz – who was the last player we got who couldn’t make his debut for us at Bramall Lane because he was suspended?
From the kick-off things looked dodgy – Sheff U charged at us and Poom had to make two saves in what seemed like seconds. We responded by playing neat, tidy passes on the floor. This stuff continued for 10, maybe 15 minutes. You felt that Warnock and McCarthy had sent the team out with these instructions. Then both teams’ nerves took over; they remembered they were in a tough match with an evenly matched opponent who was going to fight hard all the way. So the rest of the half was really tight. If anything, after Sheff U’s early opportunities, we had the better chances – Julio did one particularly mazy run into the box and sent a shot/cross whipping across – god only knows how close it was but it had us going “oooh” and “aaah” at the other end of the ground. Kyle had one of his nearest Quinn-like moments that we’ve seen – the ball came in from the right and Kylie, near the edge of the box, made room for himself and cushioned the ball on his chest to allow it to drop down to take on the volley. How often have we seen Quinny do that, with the ball looping in past the grasping goalie? Unfortunately Kylies’s volley ended up high in the stand. To be fair, we’ve seen Quinny send it up into the stand from that position plenty of times as well.
Half-time, we were pleased still to be in it. Sheff U had probably shaded it, particularly because of their brisk opening but the general feeling was that this was likely to be a one-nil and there was no reason why the one couldn’t be us. The second half remained a closely fought contest – with the emphasis on “fight”. However, it was a fair fight – neither team intended to shy out of any tackles – but they weren’t complaining when their opponents did the same. Unfortunately the ref (our friend Mr Danson) seemed oblivious to the spirit of the game – basically his rule was that if there was physical contact between two players it must be a foul and if two legs touched someone must be booked.
We weren’t letting them through very easily but our build up play was often scrappy – personally I am willing to give credit to Sheff U for that, rather than criticise our own players. Breen was again as solid as a rock at the back – what an acquisition he has been. I think McCartney is looking good alongside him but a lot of that is down to Breen – a bit like how good CBs looked alongside Steve Bould. Williams was doing a good job of getting into the tackle but his ball play was poor – rarely did he get a good clean ball to a man in a position that they could do anything about it. Arca was showing how much his defensive play has come along but was still trying to help create down the left side. Healy was having a solid game but was not dominating in the way he has in some recent games. And what about Whitley? Well he tackles OK and every now and again he makes some canny passes. He does seem to have poor positional sense though – often ending up standing right next to another SAFC player. While I wouldn’t criticise him for this performance (or indeed the one on Tuesday), I am going to have to do quite a bit more duty on Whitely-watch with my most positive frame of mind before I can be converted to his cause. Oster – well this was not really his game – he just didn’t get the sort of space he has created against lesser teams than Sheff U. Butler seemed pretty anonymous to me. I suppose if the CMs couldn’t get a hold of the game then it is not surprising that your wide men can’t have much of an influence. Kyle I thought was magnificent – he must be such a pain to play against, the work he put in making the Sheff U’s defence’s lives a misery was great to see – he deserved the goal he got. Stewart seemed to spend a lot of time dropping deep but I guess that was the sort of game it was.
If you’d asked me straight after the game when had we scored, I think I would have said somewhere towards the end. I was surprised to see it was as early as the 68th minute. I guess that mentally, as soon as we’d scored, my mind switched to “let’s hold on to this until the final whistle” mode and so I just assumed it was near the end – the minutes waiting for the final whistle if you’re defending a narrow lead always seem like hours in any case so the fact that this was 22 minutes rather than, say, 10 didn’t really register. The goal itself was a gem. The ball was played into the corner on our left wing – for me in the upper tier this was behind the bloody big metal pole holding up the stand (look – this is an eye-witness report, not the Sunday Scum – if I couldn’t see it, I don’t just make it up) – apparently it was Stewart who whipped it across. What I did get a perfect view of was Kylie’s gorgeously timed run in front of the defender towards the near post and his dive to meet the ball and send it powering into the net. What a beauty – and so good for Kylie to get it right in front of us and hear the travelling army singing out his name. His game is maturing faster than even I hoped and the fact that he is scoring regularly is a real bonus – I much more saw him as a creator.
After our goal I can’t remember Poom having to make a difficult save. As he had been all game, he continued to command the balls that came into the box but we held on to what he had with conviction. Thornton came on for Butler to give Sheff U more to think about. But then towards the end the inevitable happened, someone got sent off – it happened to be Arca but it could have been anyone – the ref’s approach to handing out yellow cards meant that it would have taken a miracle for 22 men to have still been on the pitch at the end of the game. We brought on Bjork for Stewart – I thought he would slip in at LB (even though he is right footed, he is experienced enough to do that for under 10 minutes). To my surprise though Bjork was sent into his natural CB position and McCartney moved into his erstwhile position of LB. Personally I wouldn’t have wanted to disturb the crucial centre of defence at this stage but all is well that ends well.
We got 4 minutes of injury time and then we were allowed to celebrate a great three points. A draw might have been a slightly “fairer” result but sod fairness, we’re playing football. We’ll certainly play better than this this season and we have some lessons to learn. However, we’ll also meet a lot weaker teams than Sheff U. The real positive is that this continues the new SAFC spirit that we have so admired over the last few weeks. Keep that spirit going, build on some of the nice passing football that we’re developing and keep goals flowing from different players (Stew on the score sheet a few more times would be good) and this is going to be an enjoyable season. There is already a feeling growing that the top seven or so clubs look like they will be the ones at the top at the end – it is hard to see others breaking in. However, where we finish amongst that lot is up for grabs.