Once again, the latest phase of the Checkatrade Trophy group stages took place during an international week which meant several members of Sheffield United’s squad, Aaron Ramsdale, Harry Chapman and Louis Reed included, were unable to take part.
It seems, as Chris Wilder acknowledged before last night’s tie against Walsall, a curious decision given that its recent overhaul was supposedly designed to benefit young, domestic talent. Supporters voted with their feet and, whether intended or not, United with their performance as goals from Scott Laird and Amadou Bakayoko sealed the visitors’ progress despite a clinical finish from substitute Paul Coutts.
Walsall, without a win at Bramall Lane since April 2002, took an early lead when Laird seized upon a defensive error to net his first goal for 12 months. Irrespective of the competition’s stature, the fact United have kept only three clean sheets this season will cause Wilder and his staff some concern. Matt Done and Jack O’Connell, wearing the captain’s armband in Billy Sharp’s absence, both went close. But, as the match meandered towards the interval, it was Chris Hussey who nearly dragged the hosts’ back on level terms. His delivery from dead ball situations is one of the reasons why Wilder signed the full-back soon after taking charge in May. Bramall Lane’s lowest attendance since the Anglo-Italian Cup era was treated to his full repertoire with a corner during the closing stages of the first-half nearly catching Walsall goalkeeper Craig MacGillivray unawares.United chased, pressed and probed but could not prevent their opponents creating chances.
Bakayoko took his tally in the group to four after being left in space midway through the second period and, while David Brooks should have reduced the deficit from a similar position soon after, Coutts netted his first goal in United colours to keep the contest alive.
Shaun Harvey, chief executive of the English Football League, launched a charm offensive before this latest round of games. Using a question and answer session, distributed to the media, he insisted that the competition had been overhauled with up-and-coming English professionals in mind.
Suspicions remain that aspiring Premier League players are more of a priority than those plying their trade in the lower divisions. Although, given that they have developed more members of the latest England team than Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, United do not need any lessons on youth development from their top-flight counterparts.
Nevertheless, it was two of Wilder’s more experienced players who caught the eye. Mark Duffy deployed out wide, posed plenty of questions while Simon Moore once again impressed between the posts.
His save to deny Josh Ginnelly was good. The flying block and parry to scramble clear from Bakayoko before the centre-forward eventually pounced, even better. But it was not enough to keep the hosts’ hopes of reaching the knockout stages alive.
United used the postponement of this weekend’s League One fixture with Jon Whitney’s side to field a strong starting eleven. Chris Basham, currently serving a three match suspension after being dismissed at Scunthorpe, was eligible to take part while James Wilson was coaxed back into action following injury. The decision not to have handed Ben Whiteman a more prominent role will have raised eyebrows but David Brooks, another graduate of the same academy which spawned Kyle Walker and Phil Jagielka, did make his full debut. Likewise former Bury and Barnsley defender Reece Brown. Brooks celebrated his landmark achievement by claiming an assist following an industrious shift in midfield.
Walsall entered the game on top of Northern Group H after beating Grimsby Town 5-2 at the Banks’s Stadium two months ago. Bakayoko claimed a first-half hat-trick during that match but turned provider here after Brown’s sliced clearance ended with the visitors taking a 16th minute lead. The 20-year-old from Sierra Leone drove the ball across Moore’s six yard box and, despite O’Connell’s best efforts, Laird smashed it high into the roof of the net at the far post.
United’s response came in the form of a delightful centre from Hussey which begged to be turned home but evaded the on-rushing Done and Stefan Scougall. Done should have buried another another cross, this time from John Fleck, but miscontrolled before Brooks blazed over the crossbar. Erhun Oztumer followed suit for Walsall soon after and although United continued to use possession well, MacGillivray was not required to make a save until the 44th minute when Hussey’s corner threatened to creep home.
Bakayoko doubled Walsall’s advantage in the 66th minute having earlier been denied by Moore’s excellent block.
Coutts halved it 13 minutes later after some neat work by Brooks. Basham spurned a chance to level when his effort on the stroke of full-time was blocked.
Sheffield United: Moore, Hussey, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham, Scougall (Coutts 59), Done, Brown (Freeman 69), Wilson, Duffy, Brooks. Not used: Long, Sharp, Whiteman, Lafferty, Semple.
Walsall: MacGillivray, Edwards, Laird, McCarthy, Dobson (Chambers 85), Oztumer, Preston, Ginnelly (Shorrock 75), Bakayoko, Toner, Moussa. Not used: Etheridge, O’Connor, Butterfield, Roberts, Cockerill-Mollett.
Referee: Darren Handley (Lancashire).