After all the backslapping, flattery and statements of mutual respect, this match turned-out to be a frustrating experience for Sheffield United.
Neil Warnock, regarded by many as the greatest manager in the visitors’ history, backed Chris Wilder’s side to cause a “more than a few upsets” in the Championship ahead of last night’s contest.
But, try as they might, the result of their meeting with Cardiff City was wholly predictable as goals from Sean Morrison and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing saw Warnock’s men remain on top of the table and condemn United to defeat.
Wilder, who spent the evening prowling around the technical area, will have been encouraged by the determination, desire and resilience his team showed; particularly as they searched for a route back into the game. When the dust settles and post-mortem is concluded, however, he is likely to use its findings as more evidence that United are in need of further reinforcements before the transfer window closes in just over two weeks’ time. The sight of Richard Stearman, his summer signing from Fulham, forced off with a leg injury exposed their need for another centre-half.
Despite strolling to the League One title last season, Wilder has admitted this term will prove a steep learning curve for his side. Although it is still far too early in the campaign to reach any concrete conclusions, United’s performance revealed much about the qualities which should see them hold their own in the competition and those areas where they must improve.
Wilder’s men held their shape well under pressure and, on those occasions City did prise them apart, showed tremendous commitment to scramble clear. Indeed, although the hosts’ created far more opportunities, United forged two excellent chances themselves before Morrison broke the deadlock. Both fell to Billy Sharp and both, through a combination of good goalkeeping and competent defending, were spurned. United were unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty when Bruno Ecuele Manga appeared to handle Kieron Freeman’s cross inside the box.
Nevertheless, it was still no surprise to see City take the lead although, after causing all manner of problems with their movement, the opener came via a set-piece. With United centre-half Stearman succumbing to injury, Morrison climbed highest to head the ball beyond Jamal Blackman. Conceding so soon after the 29-year-old’s departure underlined why Wilder is desperate to add Blackburn Rovers’ Darragh Lenihan to his squad. But there was precious little United or the excellent Blackman could do to prevent Mendez-Laing doubling City’s lead soon after the re-start.
It was, as Warnock later admitted, a finish worthy of a much higher stage.
“That’s what the lad can do,” Warnock, who spent eight years in charge at Bramall Lane, said. “To be fair, I don’t think there was any stopping that.”
The Welsh capital is woven into the fabric of Warnock’s managerial career. Ninian Park, which stood a few short passes along the Sloper Road, was where his United team effectively sealed promotion to the top-flight just over a decade ago. Three years earlier, on the banks of the River Taff, the 68-year-old watched Wolverhampton Wanderers condemn them to defeat in the play-off final.
Warnock used his programme notes to draw comparisons between followers of his present employers and former club - “both care, have a strong sense of community and are hard-working people” - but, on the pitch, they are at different stages of their development.
City have spent the past four seasons in the second tier of English football and, consequentially, boast a much deeper squad than United. Wilder named an unchanged starting eleven for the third league match in succession but Warnock made three, despite last weekend’s rout of Aston Villa. Joe Bennett’s ommision will only serve to fuel speculation he is set to join divisional rivals Fulham while Manga was preferred to Lee Peltier in defence. But it was the decision to select playmaker Lee Tomlin, ahead of Frenchman Loic Damour, which revealed most about City’s game plan. Nevertheless, United created the first opportunity of note when Samir Carruthers released Sharp but his shot was smothered by Neil Etheridge. At the other end, a slight miscommunication between Basham and Blackman nearly presented Kenneth Zohore with a clear sight of goal but the defender eventually snuffed out the danger and cleared.
United negotiated safe passage through a potentially awkward period - Morrison drilling just past the foot of Blackman’s left post before the youngster, on loan from Chelsea, denied Junior Hoilett with a flying save - to pose some questions of their own. Sharp failed to hit the target after Manga had appeared to handle Kieron Freeman’s cross.
But they were dealt a major blow during the closing stages of the first-half when, after Zohore had spurned a glorious chance following Aron Gunnarsson’s slide-rule pass, Stearman was forced off which an injury.
City’s momentum finally told when Morrison converted Joe Ralls’ 44th minute corner.
Mendez-Laing, the former United loanee, doubled their lead soon after the re-start; cutting inside from the touchline bnefore sweeping a curling shot past Blackman who later denied Zohore with a splendid block.
Paul Coutts twice tested Etheridge’s handling as United rallied but, when Clarke nodded over during the closing stages, they returned home with nothing but kind words from Warnock to show for their efforts.
Cardiff City: Etheridge, Richards, Morrison, Bamba, Ecuele Manga, Gunnarsson, Tomlin (Damour 68), Ralls, Mendez-Laing, Zohore (Halford 88), Hoilett (Ward 79). Not used: Murphy, Peltier, Pilkington, Kennedy.
Sheffield United: Blackman, O’Connell, Stearman (Wright 36), Basham, Stevens (Brooks 74), Freeman, Coutts, Fleck, Carruthers (Evans 63), Clarke, Sharp. Not used: Eastwood, Lundstram, Duffy, Lafferty.
Referee: Lee Mason (Gr Manchester)