Down, out and utterly dejected: The story of Sheffield United's defeat by Wolves, which saw them relegated from the Premier League
Ben Osborn sank to his knees, John Egan squatted on his haunches and Enda Stevens simply stood there staring into space as he contemplated the implications of yet another disappointing result.
Sheffield United are down, officially not realistically, after being beaten by Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux. Predictably to nil, having scored only 17 goals all season during a campaign which has seen them suffer one of the most agonisingly slow deaths in Premier League history, lose a number of key players through injury and part company with the manager responsible for getting them there in the first place.
If people thought having their fate confirmed would actually be a relief for United’s players, the thousand yard stares as they trudged disconsolately off the pitch told an altogether different story. Only Jayden Bogle looked as if he couldn’t get out of there quick enough.
“There a lot of hurt in that dressing room,” caretaker manager Paul Heckingbottom said after emerging from the dressing room. “But then there’s been a lot of hurt in there for a long time now.
“This is such an unforgiving division and those lads have spent most of it looking up at everyone else.
“The players gave everything. They always give everything and whether the freedom that comes with actually knowing your fate helps over the course of the next games helps, well, I suppose we’ll have to see.
“We’ll continue to fight but it’s a strange situation to be in. Obviously they’re not feeling good right now.”
THE AGONY CONTINUES
The strange situation Heckingbottom was referring to is the fact United still have six games remaining before they actually return to the Championship. Those will be painful experiences for a squad of players, many of whom know they might never compete at the highest level again. But behind the scenes, as the club continues to sift through the wreckage caused by Chris Wilder’s departure last month, being in a state of suspended animation is potentially no bad thing. It provides an opportunity to examine why United have struggled so badly this term and come up with some answers.
The moment those in charge of overseeing that process should focus on came an hour into the contest, when Willian Jose claimed his first goal for Wolves and the only one of a match which highlighted United’s strengths but also their litany of weaknesses. Seconds earlier, Stevens thought he had fired the visitors into what would not have been an entirely undeserved lead, although the hosts’ were slicker, sharper and more fluent in possession. But the vulnerability on the counter-attack which has plagued United all term was brutally exposed again when Wolves broke upfield, Adama Traore crossed the ball and Willian caressed it into the back of the United net. It was the type of finish which makes you wonder why the Brazilian, signed on loan from Real Sociedad, does not score more.
“Those 30 seconds, that was probably the whole season right there,” Heckingbottom conceded. “We have a shot blocked, the opposition go up the pitch and score.
“Wolves have got so many options, with regards to what they can do and where they can put people at any given time but I thought we were more than in it.”
BAD HABITS PROVE COSTLY AGAIN
United have lost all of their matches since parting company with Wilder midway through last month although in fairness, losing was something they had already grown used to before internal politics - one thing Bramall Lane does do better than most outfits at the highest level - prompted his departure.
“Sheffield is a team I have a huge amount of respect for,” Nuno Espirito Santo, the Wolves manager, said after watching his men condemn United to the drop. “We came up from the Championship together at around the same time, and I have a huge admiration for that group of players - the same as I have for Chris and Paul now.
“Sometimes, this is football. I am sure they came back.”
With Newcastle beating West Ham earlier in the day, United arrived in the Black Country 19 points adrift of safety and knowing that a loss would see the dreaded ‘R’ drawn next to their name on the rankings.
Earlier in the week, Heckingbottom admitted that meant United were compelled to try and attack the fixture. They tried but with Oli McBurnie and Billy Sharp, still the most ruthless marksman on their roster, ruled out with foot and tension issues found it difficult to make much of an impression on Wolves’ rearguard. Whenever they did, or at least threatened to, a tendency to over-elaborate and think rather than do betrayed a lack of belief and confidence.
“We’ve wanted to try and do that all the way through, to get people forward and be positive,” said Heckingbottom, who introduced Oliver Burke and Lys Mousset during the closing stages to try and force a result. “Hopefully, the players can express themselves a little bit more now.
“But we were playing against a good defensive unit. They take so many passes in your half, it’s untrue. But they (Wolves) are also excellent on the counter.”
John Egan, wearing the captain’s armband in Sharp’s absence, made a fine intervention to deny Traore during the opening exchanges before Daniel Podence, gracefully adjusting his body position, volled just over the crossbar.
With Oliver Norwood also heading an effort from Willy Boly off the line, Wolves were more dangerous. But David McGoldrick should have done better before Willian’s strike while Stevens also drew a fine fingertip save after United fell behind.
“There are six games left and the thing we can control now is how we present ourselves,” Heckingbottom said as he attempts to ensure United make an orderly rather than disorderly exit from the top-flight. “That’s not only on the pitch but off it as well. Rest assured, these lads will continue to fight.”