Sheffield United 1-2 Newcastle UnitedIn what its publicists often describe as the best league in the world, is it possible to survive by dint of spirit alone? It is a theory Sheffield United seem intent on testing.
Two months ago, the answer would have been a resounding 'yes'. Victory against Tottenham in February gave them the security of a 10-point cushion ahead of the bottom three. In April, when the league table matters rather more, the answer appears to be 'no'. Sheffield United, comparatively safe since November, languish back in the bottom three.
That may surprise few. This is, though Rob Hulse and Phil Jagielka are exceptions, a squad composed of Championship players. Hence the need for spirit. It can prove effective, too. Late winners, such as those they scored against Middlesbrough, Charlton and Watford, can be attributed to their resolve. Winning at Newcastle, as Sheffield United did in October, required an indefatigability.
Defeat to Newcastle, however, showed the limitations of players from the lower leagues. The centre-back Chris Lucketti, who played his first Premiership game at 35, has given stalwart service to Bury, Huddersfield and Preston. At Sheffield United, he proved an inadequate opponent for Obafemi Martins. Out-jumped by Steven Taylor for Newcastle's winner, he was equally ineffectual at the other end, twice spurning wonderful chances.
Then there is Mikele Leigertwood, plucked from Crystal Palace to provide a cut-price barrier in front of the back four. The anchor man has rapidly acquired enemies among the Bramall Lane crowd, and his substitution was cheered. Yet, in Leigertwood's defence, his immediate opponent was Scott Parker, a £7million midfielder and an England international. Parker has been subjected to criticism on Tyneside, but his wholehearted commitment served Newcastle well. When he went off, it was to have an ice pack applied to his ankle.
Another uneven duel occurred on Sheffield United's right flank when Leigh Bromby was notionally Damien Duff's marker. In reality, he rarely threatened to get close to the elusive Irishman, let alone relieve him of possession.
Glimpses of Duff's quality have been all too infrequent at St James' Park this season, but this was a reminder why Newcastle should not have been embroiled, albeit briefly, in the battle at the bottom.
His cross led to the opening goal. James Milner, restored to the team, displayed the awareness to head it back to the unmarked Martins on the edge of the area. His half-volley defeated Paddy Kenny.
If the goalkeeper was blameless then, he was far more culpable when Newcastle should have sealed victory. After emerging from his area, he attempted to shepherd the ball out. Martins had the speed of thought and foot to skip around him and curl in a shot from the corner flag. It rebounded off the post to Antoine Sibierski, who skied his effort some way over a goal lacking the out-of-position Kenny. It was sadly typical of his efforts all afternoon.
Taylor secured the points with a forceful header from Milner's corner, and he needed to. The introduction of Christian Nade provided Sheffield United with a focal point to their attack and, before long, an equaliser. Nick Montgomery, with far more awareness of his team-mate's whereabouts than the Newcastle defence showed, squeezed out a pass and Nade's finish, back across goal, was precise.
Warnock being Warnock, some barbed comments followed. 'At 1-1, I thought they were there for the beating, so to conceded an elementary goal is a kick in the teeth,' he said. 'It makes you wonder why they [Newcastle] didn't put that effort in at Charlton [where they lost 2-0].'
Officiating, a familiar theme to long-time Warnock watchers, then reared its head. Referring to the West Ham goal at Blackburn that never crossed the line, he added: 'We need a Mr Devine as linesman, to kick-start our season, like West Ham had. We won't be favourites now to stay up now.
'I'm sick as the old proverbial. You can't ask any more as a manager than your players give everything, and they did.'
Perhaps, but that should be a concern in itself. There is a reason why Sheffield United have used more players than any other team. Quantity, rather than quality, seems to have been the prevailing theme in the accumulation of one of the Premiership's largest squads.
Most players are interchangeable; an alternative 11 could conceivably have produced the same performance and got the same result. There is a suspicion that Neil Warnock does not know his best team and a feeling that, whatever it is, spirit alone will not suffice to keep them up.
• MAN OF THE MATCH: Obafemi Martins: A class above the Sheffield United defence. There are times when, at £10million, he appears a bargain. There are times, too, when he may question his decision to join Newcastle.
• MOAN OF THE MATCH: Glenn Roeder's post-match interview was one long moan. The targets varied from those who suggested Duff would join Sunderland, to critics of Parker, via anyone who thought Newcastle could have been in danger of going down and anyone who seemed to have mentioned his management of West Ham when they were relegated. Surely winning managers should be happier.
• SHEFFIELD UNITED VERDICT: They have three home games left, versus West Ham, Watford and Wigan. Anything less than three wins, and they are likely to return to the Championship.
• NEWCASTLE VERDICT: With 40 points, they should be safe now. While Roeder insists they were never in the relegation battle, they certainly shouldn't have been. Injuries notwithstanding, their squad should have spent the entire season in the top half.