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Humphreys relishes goal on his return home to Bramall Lane
Final Score: Sheffield United 2 Hartlepool United 3
RITCHIE Humphreys has ticked off plenty on his career list; on Saturday he could add another to his collection, and it was one of his best.
As a schoolboy he supported Sheffield United from the Kop, and hoped to make it at Bramall Lane. But he was released as a 13-year-old before moving across the Steel City to stamp his mark at Wednesday.
It's taken 22 years since leaving his club, but he finally scored at Bramall Lane. Worth the wait? It certainly felt like it.
With Hartlepool United going through the most desperate of seasons, they went to the League One leaders with a single win to their name this campaign.
There's a reason why Pools were 10/1 with the bookies ahead of the game.
Three days previously they had gone to Carlisle, a team with one win in nine, and been rolled over 3-0.
There was only one outcome here surely. Surely?
Instead, Pools gave their most competent performance in almost a year.
The last time they looked anywhere near as decent as this was in beating Notts County 3-0 at Victoria Park in February.
There's been plenty of utter misery since. On this occasion, however, it was sheer joy.
Steve Howard finally got the type of delivery into the area he's been after all season. Seven minutes in and Evan Horwood's cross was there to be powered in. Howard had only scored once this season before Saturday - also against Sheffield United.
He got his second of the game when James Poole provided another cross for the man who should be the division's best targetman to head in.
By then, Humphreys had had his moment. He was involved in starting the move with Simon Walton in midfield. Horwood overlapped and crossed to the near post.
Humphreys met it, took a swing with his left foot and deceived keeper George Long for his first goal since scoring at Bury on February 28.
It wasn't his best goal, but it was celebrated with gusto - even if he embarrassed himself a little bit.
"It was special for me personally. At 35 I fulfilled a boyhood ambition of scoring a goal at the Bramall Lane end. It wasn't quite the Kop end, but being a Sheffield United fan, I can see where I used to sit in the Kop end as a kid,'' he reflected.
"I was released from here when I was 13 and they have always been my club. I cannot make any apologies for celebrating like I did in front of our fans - because of where we are in the league that goal meant a lot to us.
"We have to get out of this situation we are in. Sheffield United is a fantastic football club, as is the other one across the city.
"To score with my parents here added to the joy of going 2-1 up away to the leaders. In the grand scheme of things it's a big thing. It's an ambition to play here for me, let alone score.
"I was mascot here once. I walked out with Keith Edwards and to score here, with what it means to my club, is very special.''
This was the division's shock result of the season. Now it's up to Pools to build on it tomorrow against Preston at Victoria Park and ensure the win isn't wasted.
Preston have only won one FA Cup game in their last ten outings.
But Carlisle were equally out of form going into Boxing Day and Hughes and Humphreys must ensure this is no one-off.
While still some 11 points shy of the safety mark, Humphreys said: "Everyone would probably put money on Sheffield United to beat us and this is an upset.
"In the situation we are in we have to hope to cause upsets, use the situation to our advantage. Hartlepool have nine points at Christmas, people are writing us off and we have to use that as a tool to get motivated.
"There's a chance we can stay up. It's going to be tough but we have to believe after winning at the league leaders.
After scoring, his attempts to slide on his knees in the Bramall Lane mud were scuppered and he ended up rolling over in front of the travelling fans.
"It wasn't a trademark stunner of a goal,'' he confessed. "Evan pulled it back and you have to keep it down as it's easy to put over the bar.
"I did scuff it a bit, but the keeper might have thought it was going across him. I saw it go in and that's all that matters, but my celebration wasn't the best....
"I think I found the only dry bit on the pitch and I've scuffed my knee!
"It means so much to score a goal anywhere in football, but to do it here, in this situation we are in, it's a special one.''
The Blades, managed by Danny Wilson, hadn't lost at home this season.
The ex-Pools chief called the defeat a "flick in the knackers".
They did have a goal chalked off for offside with the scores at 1-1, but the flag - perhaps wrongly - was raised well before the ball was turned in.
Wilson was missing two key defenders in Neill Collins and Tony McMahon.
But the home defence struggled from the off against Howard. From the moment he powered past Matt Hill and Marcus Williams and scored, he was the focal point for Pools.
With willing runners around him and delivery into him accurate, he showed how he can play and Pools showed they can play with him.
Likewise in midfield, Simon Walton was influential sitting in front of the back four and behind a line of three as he prompted Pools from deep.
He showed what he can do and, on this performance, is the player Pools hoped they had signed in the summer.
Manager John Hughes has spoken of the need to come up with a system to suit his players and give them a chance to win games.
On Saturday he found it, the three midfielders ahead of Walton always in the thick of it, allowing the man in the holding role to get on the ball.
This performance was some turnaround from Boxing Day and the dross served up this season.
The pleasing aspect for Humphreys and Co was that they didn't fold after conceding an equaliser.
They dug in, showed the character missing too often, and turned the game back in their favour.
"Boxing Day and we lost at Carlisle - goals change games and that was what finished us off,'' said Humphreys.
"Until the first one there was nothing in it, the second one goes in and we've not come back from deficits like that this season.
"We've had a knockback here, but the spirit was there and got us through it, which is encouraging for me.
"There's a lot of stuff gone on that you have to enjoy doing - tracking runners, jumping, blocking, the basics and the fundamentals of football.
"Me playing against you, I've got to win that battle to give us a platform and if everyone does that then you have a chance.''
He added: "Scoring here is another one to tick off the list. My wife said to me on Saturday morning that I probably wouldn't get the chance to play at Bramall Lane again - what's the chances of me playing in the Championship next season or the one after - so just go out and enjoy it.
"My sister was here from London to see it with my parents and it means a lot.
"A few of my mates around the ground were giving me some stick and I've got a few texts from them, but they will be pleased for me really.''
0-1: Howard (7, powered in header from six yards when meeting a curling cross from Horwood)
1-1: Doyle (30, shot from the edge of the area caught Flinders flat-footed)
1-2: Humphreys (54, move in midfield involving Humphreys and Walton played in Horwood to cross low for the midfielder to sweep in)
1-3: Howard (72, Poole got to the byline and cut his cross into the area for the striker to head across goal)
Bookings: Collins (foul 67), Hartley (dissent 69), Maguire (unsporting behaviour 89), Monkhouse (unsporting behaviour 89), Poole (foul 89)
Referee: Darren Deadman (Peterborough): A couple of early home challenges went unpunished when yellow cards should have been shown, but no grumbles about others 6
SHEFFIELD UNITED (4-4-2): Long 6; Westlake 4, Maguire 5, Hill 6, Williams 4; Blackman 7, McDonald 7, Doyle 6 (Cresswell 82), Flynn 5; Kitson 4 (Ironside 83), Cofie 4 (Chapell 66). Subs (not used): McAllister, Philliskirk, Kennedy, Coyne (gk).
HARTLEPOOL UNITED (4-1-3-2):
7 Flinders: The Blades put their share of balls into the area and he dealt with them. Wrong-footed for the first goal and should have done much better;
8 Richards: Very competent in possession and on the ball, and, while it may have been a surprise that he kept his place ahead of Austin, the decision was vindicated
7 Collins: Was given the run around at Bramall Lane 12 months ago, but he could leave with his head held high this time
7 Hartley: As disappointing as he was at Carlisle, he was as good on this occasion. Showed his passion throughout and credit for keeping Kitson in his back pocket
8 Horwood: Enjoyed his return to his former club, with two assists and did a job against the dangerous Blackman;
8 Walton: Proved his worth with crisp and simple passing. And when he wasn't involved in the game, he was cajoling and encouraging. His best
performance by a stretch;
8 Humphreys: After being a bit-part player in recent months, enjoying a renaissance under the new manager.
7 Sweeney: Busy role as part of a three-man midfield and, when called upon defensively, did his job when it mattered.
9 FRANKS: Happier in central than hugging the touchline. Full of energy and graft and, with his head up, was always looking to take the game to the home side;
6 Wyke: Linked up with the midfield and tried to get in and beyond Howard in reading his flick-ons.
8 Howard: A battering ram up front, and it was clear the home centre-halves were beaten physically and mentally.
Poole (for Wyke 60): Used his energy well to first set up Howard for the third goal and then dig in 7
Austin (for Walton 68): Sat deep in front of the back four and swept up the ball on plenty of occasions 6
Monkhouse (for Franks 80)
(not used): Baldwin, Holden, McHugh (gk), James.
MAN OF THE MATCH
JON Franks - ran himself into the ground with a non-stop display of energy and craft in midfield. Set the standard for his teammates to match his effort.
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