Another mistake, another narrow defeat, more injury and controversy: The story of Sheffield United's painful defeat by Fulham
If the Premier League was more forgiving, someone would have put them out of their misery by now.
Instead Sheffield United are condemned to finish playing its own heartless take on Takeshi’s Castle, knowing that no matter how hard they try or whatever they do, the season is as near as dammit certain to end in relegation.
Actually, rather than near as dammit, make that pretty much guaranteed after Ademola Lookman’s strike proved enough to swing this fixture Fulham’s way and leave Chris Wilder’s side with one foot and four toes back in the Championship.
Fortunately for his sanity, a controversial refereeing decision during the closing stages provided the visitors’ manager with something else to talk about other than the sight of his team making a mistake, seeing it punished and then conspiring to lose by the slimmest of margins. Oh, and the now obligatory injury too with Chris Basham limping off with a suspected hamstring strain.
After Lookman had fired the hosts in front, and eventually towards a crucial victory in their own push for safety, United substitute Jayden Bogle was tripped by Alphonse Areola as he breezed past the Fulham goalkeeper.
“I haven’t a clue how they came up with that,” was Wilder’s take on referee Martin Atkinson’s decision to award a free-kick to the hosts instead. “But they won’t have to worry about us next season,” he continued, both railing against the authorities and accepting the inevitable to boot. “It’ll be another promoted club on the end of stuff like that.”
CAUGHT BETWEEN TWO STOOLS
There have been times, as their survival hopes began to fade inexorably away, when United’s players have sounded like the official mouthpiece of some tinpot dictator - insisting, as a faraway military superpower parks its tanks on the lawns of the presidential palace, that the war can still be won and everything is bound to turn out okay.
“We definitely need something from this,” Wilder said during an interview beforehand, as he also got into the spirit of things.
The same went for Fulham. The only trouble was, for some inexplicable reason, the message did not appear to have resonated with either team. Rather than the ferocious, high octane affair most people had anticipated as both clubs went in search of a much-needed win, they appeared content to shadow box through much of the opening period. Fulham shaded it, as their manager Scott Parker later noted. But it wasn’t until early in the second, when Andre-Frank Anguissa and Billy Sharp both traded chances at either end of the pitch, that the significance of the fixture appeared to truly dawn on either. Predictably, the hosts took one of the opportunities which came their way and boosted their own hopes of staying up. United, for the umpteenth time since September, didn’t.
There was no shortage of effort. But, until the closing stages, too little creativity although Wilder took umbrage at suggestions they had been unduly conservative.
THE DIFFERENCE TOLD
Although Fulham were only promoted last term, it speaks volumes about the challenge United have faced this season that Saturday’s match was far from a fair fight. The hosts, bankrolled by a billionaire who owns an NFL franchise, have spent 15 of the past 20 seasons at the highest level. The visitors, Wilder noted beforehand, are about to finish only their third during exactly the same period. Yet Parker’s men, despite Shahid Khan’s backing and a wealth of top-flight experience, also entered the contest in desperate trouble. Crucially, they possessed a number of formidable physical specimens too with Ruben Loftus Cheek and Anguissa towering over their opponents in the centre of the pitch. Loftus Cheek, together with Harrison Reed, was influential throughout.
A SHOCK SELECTION
Wilder and Parker could be spotted deep in conversation on the touchline around half an hour or so before kick-off, casting the occasional glance over their shoulders where the two squads were warming up. Parker could have been forgiven for asking his opposite number for the name of the potion John Fleck had taken in order to be passed fit for the game. A little over 24 hours earlier Wilder, adopting the type of sombre tone Prime Ministers usually reserve for war declarations, had made it sound as if the midfielder had absolutely no chance of featuring after being taken ill last weekend. And yet here he was in all his Glaswegian glory, snapping at the heels of opponents and spraying a series of long raking passes across the perfectly manicured pitch.
Fleck’s miraculous recovery didn’t turn out to be the only surprise of the night, as Atkinson’s reading of Areola’s challenge on Bogle ensured.
With John Egan nursing a dislocated toe and Jack O’Connell still out of action, Wilder’s latest enforced reshuffle at least enabled Ethan Ampadu to take up the more advanced role he had originally been earmarked for after arriving on loan from Chelsea. When Basham joined the ever-growing ranks of United’s walking wounded, Ampadu dropped back to replace him at centre-half and quickly saw the defensive vulnerabilities in his game exposed by Lookman. The former England under-21 international, who scored Fulham’s goal during October’s 1-1 draw at Bramall Lane, was on target against United again; riding Ampadu’s half-hearted challenge and smashing the ball beyond Aaron Ramsdale.
A BIG CHANCE GONE
United should have equalised long before Atkinson’s interpretation of Areola’s challenge on Bogle left Wilder speechless. Not literally. Rather in the sense that he felt unable to offer any sort of explanation why a spot-kick had not been given and the incident seemingly not reviewed by Atkinson’s colleague Peter Bankes - sat watching the action unfold from the comfort of Stockley Park.
Billy Sharp, who had earlier drawn a decent save from the Frenchman only to be flagged offside, sent Enda Stevens racing through but he shot straight at the Paris St Germain player who, like Lookman, is on loan in west London.