Farewell Leon and a team to be proud of: SEVEN things we learned from Sheffield United's defeat at Southampton

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A remarkable first season back in the top-flight ultimately ended in defeat for Sheffield United on Sunday – but Chris Wilder’s side still finished ninth in the Premier League table.

Already guaranteed a top-10 finish, the Blades went ahead at St Mary’s through John Lundstram before a brace from their former striker Che Adams, plus a late penalty from Danny Ings, condemned them to defeat on the south coast. Our man Danny Hall offers seven talking points from the game – and the season overall.

A team to be proud of

Forget the result on Sunday, and look at the bigger picture. There aren't enough words to do justice to the achievement of this United team this year - to contend with one of the lowest budgets, a modest transfer spend by Premier League standards, pre-season predictions of embarrassment, a public boardroom spat, a global pandemic and then competing the season without fans, and still finish ninth, is remarkable. No United team since the legendary one of the 1970s has finished higher and the top-flight is virtually unrecognisable from the one that Harry Bassett's Blades finished ninth in, in the 1990s. Those days floundering in League One seem an eternity ago now. As a tweet from the club read simply on Sunday: 'Forever etched in our history.'

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Farewell, big Leon

Wilder is not someone who manages with sentiment, and Leon Clarke's farewell appearance in a Sheffield United shirt on the south coast was one borne out of a lack of resources than anything else. But it was also fitting that a man who has served the Blades and Wilder so well since he came to the club should get one final run-out, and the only disappointment was that there were no fans present to give him the send-off he deserves. From his four-goal salvo against Hull to that remarkable run of Championship goals, with a certain afternoon at Hillsborough thrown in, Clarke has been a superb servant to the Blades and deserves to be fondly remembered at Bramall Lane.

That said…

It once again highlighted what United are up against, and what a good job they have done this season, that they ended the game at St Mary's with Clarke and Richairo Zivkovic upfront. Billy Sharp had earlier missed two golden chances to put the game to bed and Oli McBurnie showed signs that a long season had taken its toll on him, while Lys Mousset was back in France with his future rather up in the air. In contrast Southampton had four shots on target and scored three times, but they also fielded £35m worth of strikers in Danny Ings and Che Adams alone. With the general consensus that big-money signings this summer will be limited, if at all, it is a gap Wilder and Co. will have to look to bridge again next season.

George Baldock played every minute of Sheffield United's Premier League season (Photo by GLYN KIRK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)George Baldock played every minute of Sheffield United's Premier League season (Photo by GLYN KIRK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
George Baldock played every minute of Sheffield United's Premier League season (Photo by GLYN KIRK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

A record goes up in smoke

Sunday's game was the first since 2014 that United have lost after taking a lead into the half-time interval. It's a truly remarkable run, taken on a step by Wilder and his staff, and maybe adds further weight to the argument that United were simply physically and mentally shot in the final game of the season.

Is it any wonder?

United once again couldn't fill their bench at St Mary's and, Wilder admitted afterwards, some of the players who were named amongst the substitutes shouldn't, with all respect, have been anywhere near. United have been stretched since the Premier League restarted and have only used 26 players in the league all season, a number which will be artificially boosted by brief appearances from the likes of Kieron Freeman (two games), Simon Moore (two games), Jack Rodwell (one game), Ravel Morrison (one game) and Clarke (two games). George Baldock was one of 15 players across the whole league to play every minute of every PL game, while Enda Stevens missed only 74 minutes all season and Chris Basham 165.

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Thanks to HawkEye, the supposedly-infallible technology used by the Premier League to rule on balls that cross the line, a lot of us learned a new word when the Blades took on Aston Villa in the first game back after Project Restart - occlusion. HawkEye's SEVEN cameras at Villa Park all managed to miss Villa 'keeper Orjan Nyland carrying Ollie Norwood's free-kick over his own goalline and the game finished 0-0. No-one can say with any degree of certainty how it would have affected the game - although the chances are United would have finished with two extra points, not to mention the psychological boost of winning their first game back - but what one imagines was HawkEye's worst nightmare played out at the end of the season, with Villa surviving by the single point that many feel they were gifted after a monumental cock-up with the technology. Bournemouth were the unlucky club to be relegated as Villa stayed up on the final day - a situation that, when we are constantly told that technology prevents mistakes, rather than enables them, should not really have happened.

Bring on 'silly season'

The transfer window is officially open again and just as the football world takes a breath after a pretty relentless six weeks or so, silly season begins. Already fans are salivating at the thought of who United could target this window - suggestions ranging from the understandable, like Aaron Ramsdale, to the outrageous, Gareth Bale, have been thrown about by supporters on various platforms - and although the constraints are probably as tight as ever as the financial effect of the Covid-19 pandemic takes hold, this window is probably as important as any in Wilder's time at United. The comfort for Blades fans is that he, aided by a superb recruitment team headed up by Paul Mitchell, have unearthed some players that have shown they belong at this level, for relative buttons. Now they only have to go and do so again!

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