Match Report: Sheffield United 0, Bolton Wanderers 1
A memorable 2017 finished on a decidedly forgettable note for Sheffield United as they were beaten at home by Bolton Wanderers.
Gary Madine's first-half goal condemned Chris Wilder's side to defeat as they failed to set a new club record for the most points recorded in a calendar year.
Although the visitors defended stoutly - something which should serve them well in their battle against relegation - United's performance fell way short of the standards they have set since lifting the League One title last season.
There were moments of promise but, when referee Stephen Martin blew the final whistle, they were left to reflect upon a display which saw them remain sixth in the Championship table ahead of Monday's trip to Derby County.
United paid the price for a slow start which allowed the visitors, who climb to 22nd, to establish a foothold in the game. They cemented it when Madine, the former Sheffield Wednesday centre-forward, converted Antonee Robinson's centre.
George Baldock's introduction gave United greater balance at the back and, as the fixture wore on, a cutting edge at the other end of the pitch too. Indeed, after Leon Clarke had seen an attempt scrambled clear, it was the substitute who came closest to claiming an equaliser until the centre-forward spurned a glorious chance in added time when he ran in front of the ball and scooped wide.
Madine, whose indiscretions on social media forced Parkinson to withdraw him from the corresponding fixture last term, received a predictably hostile reception from the home crowd before kick-off. Early bursts from Chris Basham, Enda Stevens and Billy Sharp confirmed that, on paper at least, United's players were intent on giving him a hostile reception too. But Wanderers, who unveiled a new-look back three especially for this game, enjoyed some promising periods of their own and took the lead, albeit slightly against the run of play, in the 22nd minute.
As the half progressed, United injected some rhythm into their build-up play but failed to pick the final pass. John Lundstram did, albeit after nearly being caught in possession inside his own box, but Clarke was adjudged offside. The decision was tight but did reveal a possible route to goal. Another appeared when, midway through the opening period, Mark Duffy wrong-footed Bolton's defence but was crowded-out as he prepared to shoot before John Fleck hooked over the crossbar.
Moments later, United fell behind when Madine tapped home Robinson's centre from point blank range. The fact the finish was so simple betrayed something had gone badly wrong at the back for Wilder's men; not least because of the time and space the left-back, on loan from Everton, had to pick his pass.
Cameron Carter-Vickers, who later escaped conceding a penalty after bringing Madine down, paid the price when he was withdrawn for Baldock as United made a tactical switch. It allowed Chris Basham, who had struggled to nulify Robinson's attacking threat, to revert to his preferred position of centre-half.
Baldock nearly made an immediate impact when, after combining with Clarke, he drew a save from Ben Alnwick. Then, a minute before the interval, Duffy's pass allowed Clarke to beat the offside trap but Alnwick blocked with his legs.
Clarke saw a looping header comfortably saved at the beginning of the second-half before another Duffy centre, this time angled across the area, was gathered by the goalkeeper.
Baldock went close in the 67th minute and, 13 later, drove high and wide as he stretched to reach the ball. But Clarke was left holding his head in his hands when he somehow failed to hit the target after combining with the substitute.
Sheffield United: Moore, O'Connell, Stearman (Carruthers 79), Carter-Vickers (Baldock 31), Stevens, Basham, Fleck, Lundstram, Duffy, Clarke, Sharp (Donaldson 61). Not used: Blackman, Wright, Lavery, Lafferty.
Bolton Wanderers: Alnwick, Beevers, Robinson, Cullen (Vela 84), Pratley, Morais (Little 64), Henry, Burke, Madine, Le Fondre (Armstrong 76). Not used: Buckley, Osede, Wilbraham, Turner.
Referee: Stephen Martin (Staffordshire).