It is a measure of the change Chris Wilder is trying to effect that nine of the players involved in last season’s corresponding fixture have now either left or are surplus to requirements.
Unfortunately for the Sheffield United manager, some things appear destined to stay the same as, not for the first time in recent years, the opposition was handed victory on a plate.
Southend arrived fearing the worst after losing all of their matches since beating the hosts at Roots Hall in March and departed wishing they could face United every week. Wilder, meanwhile, must be wondering exactly what he has got himself.
United have mastered the art of orchestrating their own downfall during five tortuous years in League One. They showcased that talent in truly devastating fashion once again here. Jack O’Connell’s own goal was unfortunate with the ball looping past George Long following Luke O’Neill’s cross. But the manner in which United capitulated afterwards, conceding two wholly preventable efforts was unforgivable.
First, a terrible mix-up between Long and full-back Chris Hussey presented Stephen McLaughlin with an empty net. Then, O’Connell’s night went from bad to worse when his lapse allowed Simon Cox to convert.
United, who have mustered a point from three fixtures of the new campaign, improved after the interval with Billy Sharp and Leon Clarke going close. But, given their chaotic showing beforehand, it was probably impossible to get any worse.
Mark Oxley, Long’s opposite number, did not have a save of note to make.
Wilder has signed eight players since replacing Nigel Adkins. Phil Brown, his rival across the technical area, can only dream of similar transfer trading.
Having expressed reservations about the mental fragilty in depth of the visitors’ squad before making the journey north, such has been the lack of activity at Roots Hall this summer that the former Hull chief recently felt compelled to offer Nile Ranger an opportunity to rebuild his career. Ranger has gone AWOL at both of his previous clubs but, playing for the first time since November 2014, found himself back on English football’s radar last night. It was only a brief appearance, with injury forcing the controversial striker off midway through the first-half.
But by then, Southend had already been allowed to stamp their authority on the game. Thanks, in no small part, to some defending even more pitiful than Ranger’s conduct in recent years. While Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill shook their heads, Brown could probably scarcely believe his luck.
O’Connell’s miscued clearance marked the start of the deluge before McLaughlin and Cox put the contest beyond reach. There were some displays of defiance, most notably from Sharp and Clarke. But, for the most part, United simply huffed, puffed and looked worryingly fragile at the back. A bemusing state of affairs given that the visitors had made the long journey north looking to arrest a run of eight straight defeats.
With that in mind, United had earlier tried to chip away at Southend’s brittle confidence by bursting out of the blocks with Matt Done going close and Chris Basham appealing in vain for a penalty during the first five minutes. But any hope of truly testing the opposition’s mental resolve was wrecked inside the opening quarter of an hour. Southend’s breakthrough was fortuitous - O’Neill’s sixth minute cross finding its way into the back of the net after slicing-off O’Connell’s boot - but their second, eight minutes later, was presented on a plate. Chris Hussey and George Long both dithered over a loose ball which allowed McLaughlin to score possibly the easiest goal of his career. Things went from bad to worse sixty second later when yet another mistake, this time from the hapless O’Connell, allowed Cox to pounce.
Predictably, United spent much of the first-half looking battered, bruised and thoroughly bemused. When their heads finally cleared, Clarke twice went close at the far post only for a defender to intervene at the vital moment while Chris Basham, completing a century of United starts, forlornly tried to drive them forward.
Sharp curled inches wide at the beginning of the second period after Clarke’s industry had punched a hole in Southend’s rearguard. What United lacked, despite rediscovering their endeavour, was invention. Substitute Harry Chapman did his best to test Southend’s back four with some driving runs while Paul Coutts brought some bite to a midfield which had previously looked way off the pace. But, with cross after cross flying across Oxley’s six yard box without ever being troubled by a United forward, their initial response simply petered-out. Indeed, Jason Williams went close to extending Southend’s margin of victory during the closing stages when he drilled across goal after escaping United’s offside trap.
Sheffield United: Long, Brayford, Hussey, Fleck (Coutts 46), O’Connell, Basham, Sharp, Done (Chapman 46), Wilson, Duffy (Scougall 72), Clarke. Not used: McNulty, Ramsdale, Wright, Freeman.
Southend United: Oxley, Coker, Thompson, Barrett, O’Neill, Cox (Atkinson 76), McLaughlin, King, Leonard, Demetriou, Ranger (Mooney 25, Williams 86)). Not used: White, McGlashan, Bridge, Smith.
Referee: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).