Match Analysis: Despite the drama, Sheffield United demonstrated their new-found maturity during a 3-2 win at Millwall
It was four minutes from time, as Chris Wilder ruminated on the touchline and Millwall sensed an upset of sorts, when the thought first entered David McGoldrick's head. Â
"It was funny," the Sheffield United centre-forward, who a week earlier had scored a last gasp winner against Preston North End, said. "We got a corner and, as we were preparing to take it, I looked up and saw the clock. I remember thinking 'you got one around this time' in our previous game. That was when I sensed I was going to get another chance and do it all over again."
His hunch proved correct. Moments after converting the penalty which seemed destined to have earned the visitors a point, McGoldrick ensured they snatched all three instead by sweeping home Mark Duffy's cross. Wilder punched the air in celebration. Neil Harris solemnly bowed his head. But even the Londoners' beleaguered manager, as he contemplated a seventh loss in eight Championship outings, must have accepted United's victory was deserved. Despite, after relinquishing another lead during a furious second-half, the dramatic circumstances.
"The team started so well," McGoldrick said. "They came back but we're not a group that fades.
"We believe, and I believe personally, that we've got a really good squad. Okay, we've got to cut out those mad couple of moments. But, overall, we're getting the results."
The moments McGoldrick was referring to came early in the second-half when, after Billy Sharp's opener, Jake Cooper and Lee Gregory turned the match on its head. Pouncing twice in the space of three crazy minutes, Millwall's tails were up and The Den was back to its intimidating best.
But, amid the chaos, United kept their heads. Handed a lifeline by the hapless Shaun Williams, Wilder's players adhered to his game plan, remained true to their principles and passed, given the surroundings, what McGoldrick later acknowledged was arguably their most significant test of character yet.
"I thought, to do that here, really showed what we're all about," he said. "It's one of the toughest atmospheres out there, the home fans demand 100 per cent from their team and it drives them on.
"They were running about and putting it all in. So, to come through the way we did, well, I think that tells you a lot."
United owed their success to persistence, self-belief and perseverance peppered with moments of high-calibre football and skill. But, for Wilder at least, it was deeply satisfying in other ways too. The 51-year-old has endured some of his most disappointing moments as United manager in this corner of the capital and travelled south hoping to avoid a third straight away defeat at the hands of Harris' side.
However, while Millwall have regressed since the end of last season, United are maturing into a formidable unit. Enda Stevens and Kieron Freeman, whose performances were both praised by Wilder afterwards, are 12 months older, wiser and more experienced while new arrivals such as Oliver Norwood and McGoldrick, acquired on a free transfer from Ipswich Town, have equipped them with the composure required to produce big plays at big moments.
"I can't speak for when I wasn't here," McGoldrick said. "But, from what I've seen, we've got that in us. We have to keep our feet grounded, keep focused and keep doing what we're doing."
"I'm happy," he continued. ""I'm happy to be playing and, more importantly, to be playing in this team. The way we go about it, the way we approach our football, it suits me down to the ground because we create chances.
"People will look at the ball from Duff and think it was easy for him to cross it so I could slot home. It wasn't. That's the sign of a big player who comes alive in those big moments."
Although McGoldrick and Sharp applied the finishing touches, the latter redeeming himself after missing from the spot, Duffy was the architect of a win which saw fourth-placed United move to within a point of leaders West Bromwich Albion. It was the midfielder Williams barged over to concede his second penalty of the afternoon before, once McGoldrick had converted, providing the contest's decisive assist.
By electing to ignore their presence in his pre-match programme notes, Harris served United with notice ofÂ Millwall's intentions. Likewise when Ryan Leonard, playing against his parent club ahead of a January transfer, scythed through McGoldrick.Â
Amos denied Sharp when Williams was adjudged to have handled but United's captain made no mistake from Duffy's centre before first Cooper and then Gregory, from Leonard's through ball, set the stage for the late drama.
"We stuck to our game plan and what we practiced all week," McGoldrick said. "There's no point in going long because that's not my strength and it isn't really Billy's either. Their centre-halves are about seven feet tall. So we kept on going and believed in what we'd worked on."
Millwall: Amos, Meredith (Bradshaw 89), Cooper, Williams, Wallace, Gregory, Romeo, Webster, Morison (Elliott 84), O'Brien (Ferguson 80), Leonard. Not used: Archer, Tunnicliffe, Elliott, Wallace, Skalak.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Stevens (Johnson 74), Fleck, O'Connell, Basham, Sharp, Egan, Norwood, McGoldrick (Clarke 90), Freeman, Duffy (Stearman 89). Not used: Moore, Lundstram, Coutts, Washington.
Referee: Andy Davies