Sheffield United verdict and reaction: Blades 0 Wigan 2
Having refused to downplay its significance beforehand, Sheffield United were left with no alternative but to confront the painful implications of this pivotal result.
Nigel Adkins, whose side find themselves 14 points behind second-placed Walsall with 17 matches remaining, accepted it signals the end of their automatic promotion chances.
George Long, who was left horribly exposed for both of Wigan Athletic’s goals, acknowledged the final outcome had also caused considerable but not irrevocable damage to United’s hopes of returning to the Championship next season via the play-off route.
Adkins and Long both agreed, after hearing the home crowd deliver its own damning verdict on the final whistle, that key aspects of the team’s performance left plenty to be desired, particularly, with Will Grigg opening the scoring from the penalty spot before debutant Conor McAleny punished a defensive lapse, in terms of decision-making and negotiating safe passage through critical periods of games.
“It’s made our job that bit more difficult,” Long, making his 100th appearance for United, conceded. “We were chasing the promotion spots going into the game and now we’ve given ourselves a hill to climb.
“We know we’ve got to go on a good run now but, with the quality that’s here, I think we’ll do it. We’re more than capable, we’ve just got to be more consistent and stop giving ourselves problems, which we did out there.”
Although it would be doing Wigan a disservice to say United were the architects of their own downfall, Adkins’ players demonstrated a masochistic streak when, after nearly an hour of less than compelling action, Chris Basham upended Yanic Wildschut to leave referee Stephen Martin with, Adkins confessed, “no option” other than to award a spot-kick.
Then, only three minutes later, McAleny converted a low near-post drive after the former Netherlands under-21 international and Max Power were inexplicably allowed to work the ball upfield.
Grigg duly enjoyed another opportunity from 12 yards out, this time when Paul Coutts was punished for a seemingly innocuous challenge on Chris McCann but Long’s save counted for nothing come the end.
Fortunately, given the Blades’ predicament, the 23-year-old has previous when it comes to beating the odds. Long, whose first senior outing came, aged just 17, against Swansea City five seasons ago, was instrumental in helping Motherwell preserve their Scottish Premiership status during a spell on loan at Fir Park last term.
“As long as there’s belief in the dressing room then, really, it’s irrelevant what people outside it say,” he said.
“Over two legs, against Rangers, we were given absolutely no chance. Everybody was writing us off but we ended up beating them 6-1 on aggregate. I know this is a different set of circumstances but it’s within our grasp if we push and show the qualities we’ve got.”
“It’s not quite panic stations yet,” he continued. “There are plenty of games left and points to play for. We’ll win more than we lose, I’m sure, which will put us in good stead. What we’ve got to do now is work hard and bounce back.”
United, who trail sixth-placed Millwall by five points, have first-hand experience of just how costly defeats to Wigan can be. This was the first meeting between the two clubs at Bramall Lane since the visitors condemned them to relegation on the final day of the 2006/07 Premier League campaign.
More than 3,000 days and 488 matches later, they met again in the third tier less than a month after sharing the spoils during a dramatic 3-3 draw in Lancashire.
This contest, despite a promising start which saw Jose Baxter twice go close, was characterised by both teams’ lack of penetration. United, until Basham’s error of judgement, defended well but were predictable and pedestrian going forward, with Billy Sharp, their leading goalscorer, starved of service until forcing Juusi Jaaskelainen to save just before Grigg’s goal.
“We knew it would be a tough game but the result, obviously, wasn’t what we wanted,” Long said. “The penalty set us back. I thought we were comfortable up until that point. I didn’t really have a shot to save during the first half but that put us on the back foot.”
Whereas only two of Grigg’s goals this season have come away from the DW Stadium, all three of McAleny’s efforts since turning professional have come on his travels. Signed on loan from Everton last week, the youngster played alongside Grigg during a previous stint with Brentford and the two struck up an instant rapport despite the paucity of clear-cut opportunities.
“It wasn’t a risk bringing him in,” Wigan manager Gary Caldwell, assessing McAleny’s contribution, said.
“Conor has played at a higher level before so we knew he’s got the capabilities and I think he fitted in straight away out there.”
Long, who had earlier made a superb save to thwart McAleny before Grigg claimed his fifth goal in as many games, prevented Wigan from increasing their margin of victory by blocking the centre-forward’s second penalty kick.
“The penalty save was a bit of an irrelevance because we didn’t win but that’s my job, keeping the ball out,” he said.
“I saved one against him when he was at Brentford so I know exactly what his run-up is like. For the second one, it was pretty slow and so I was able read what he was doing.”
Sheffield United: Long 7, Brayford 6, Basham 5 (Done 70, 6), Coutts 6, Sharp 6, Baxter 6 (Campbell-Ryce 77), Collins 6, Sammon 5 (Adams 46, 6), McEveley 6, Edgar 6, Hammond 6. Not used: Howard, Flynn, Woolford, Reed.
Wigan Athletic: Jaaskelainen 6, Perkins 6, Daniels 7, Power 6, McCann 7, Morsy 6, Grigg 7 (Davies 77), Morgan 6, McAleny 7 (Wabara 71), Pearce 7, Wildschut 6. Not used: Kellett, Nicholls, Chow, Colclough, Vuckic.
Referee: Stephen Martin (Staffordshire).