Sheffield United have developed an unfortunate habit in recent seasons of making the possible seem impossible and discovering bizarre new ways to trip themselves up.
It is proving, as even Chris Wilder’s rejuvenated team seem intent on demonstrating, remarkably difficult to break as they were comfortably beaten by Fleetwood.
The League One leaders, still two points ahead of second-placed Scunthorpe but now having played two games more, have spent most of the season bludgeoning opponents into submission with dynamic attacking play. But against Uwe Rosler’s side, they were hesitant, fractious and, for the most part, devoid of quality. Conor McLaughlin and Devante Cole, whose strikes propelled the visitors to victory, will enjoy this moment. For Wilder and United, however, this was a forgettable experience.
The introduction of James Hanson and Jay O’Shea before kick-off turned-out to be highlight of a turgid match. Whether or not United’s latest acquisitions, signed from Bradford City and Chesterfield respectively, would have made any tangible difference to the calibre of their new club’s performance was open to debate. Certainly Hanson, a man-mountain of a centre-forward, must have fancied his chances of converting some of the crosses which sailed aimlessly over Fleetwood’s box. Not that the visitors, despite recent impressive results, were much better. But, unlike United, they made the most of their opportunities.
McLaughlin’s goal was fortuitious - Bobby Grant’s scuffed long-range shot morphing into a defence splitting pass - but also highlighted United’s failings before the break. The Liverpudlian was left in acres of space as he moved into opposition territory while yet more hesitancy meant McLaughlin had an age to decide where to shoot.
United improved after the interval but still lacked the purpose which made them such a force to be reckoned with in recent months. But Cole’s strike, gift-wrapped by Ethan Ebanks-Landell, robbed them of any hope.
Having dropped what Wilder described as “big points” during Saturday’s draw with Gillingham and without a match this weekend, United had been under no illusions about the importance of last night’s match. It was a significant occasion for Marc McNulty too after being handed his first start since being recalled from a supposedly season long loan at Bradford. The Scot approached his work with plenty of energy but, starved of service, became a peripheral figure and was withdrawn at the break. Chris Basham was also substituted although, in truth, there were also seven or eight other candidates.
Unlike United, Fleetwood have spent the past few seasons punching above their weight. Thanks, in no small part, to the largess of owner Andy Pilley who has ploughed an estimated £10m into the former non-league club.
Thirteen years and six promotions later, Rosler’s side made the journey east ranked fourth in the table and unbeaten in 10 league games. Handing full debuts to Wes Burns and Markus Schwabl, son of former Bayern Munich midfielder Manfred, they spent most of the early exchanges attempting to stifle United’s attacking threat.
But, midway through the opening period, Grant’s mis-hit centre fell kindly for McLaughlin and the Northern Ireland international duly slid home. United, who had already survived a huge scare when Burns saw an attempt deflected wide, struggled to regather their composure. They retained possession well but, after entering the final third, were unusually reluctant to make a decisive pass. When they did, much to Wilder’s obvious frustration on the touchline, it went hopelessly astray.
Kieron Freeman, spotting Billy Sharp’s run to the far post, found the corner flag rather than his captain’s head while Mark Duffy ballooned a speculative effort well over Alex Cairns’ bar.
Despite their lack of cohesion, United did keep plugging away. But it was Fleetwood who, until Sharp got the bit between his teeth, carried the greater threat. Devante Cole sent a low drive skidding just past the foot of Simon Moore’s right hand post before the United goalkeeper came to his team’s rescue with an excellent save to deny Burns. The chain of events which resulted in the chance summed up the hosts’ performance so far; Duffy showing good awareness to escape his marker’s clutches but then handing Fleetwood the initiative with a desperately poor pass.
Jack O’Connell and Sharp, forcing a fine reaction save from Cairns, were both a whisker away from restoring parity before Ebanks-Landell’s calamitous 68th minute left Moore stranded, Cole in the clear and sealed United’s fate.
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham (Scougall 46), McNulty (Lavery 46), Sharp, Coutts, Freeman, Ebanks-Landell, Duffy, Lafferty (Done 89). Not used: Ramsdale, Wright, Riley, Wilson.
Fleetwood Town: Cairns, McLaughlin, Bell, Eastham, Burns (Hunter 62), Grant, Bolger, Dempsey, Davies, Schwabl (Glendon 76), Cole (Ball 70). Not used: Neal, Davis, Long, Maguire.
Referee: Robert Jones (Merseyside).