Guts, glory and another David McGoldrick goal sees Sheffield United create headlines for all the right reasons against Aston Villa
In a sense this was a distraction, although Chris Wilder will argue otherwise.
Already effectively relegated, simply waiting for the Premier League’s number crunchers to confirm their fate, Sheffield United entered this game against Aston Villa knowing that win, lose or draw, they are destined for the Championship.
The real main event, the one which promises to shape the club’s future both next season and beyond, is actually taking place far away from the pitch where David McGoldrick tonight propelled them to a rare but deserved victory.
It is a battle for power, not points. For influence over policy. And it is being fought between some of the most powerful and high profile figures at Bramall Lane, including the manager responsible for guiding it into the Premier League in the first place and associates of owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
For an hour-and-a-half at least, however, United returned to a semblance of normality.
After handing his employers an ultimatum on the eve of the fixture, Wilder was back bellowing orders on the touchline, sending clouds of condensed breath billowing into the cold night air. His players, despite going about their business with plenty of spirit, also displayed many of the vulnerabilities which have contributed to their slide down the table.
But they approached their work with trademark character too. Oliver Norwood and John Fleck impressed before the break. George Baldock was superb throughout, making his presence felt at both ends of the pitch thanks to a boundless energy and some extremely brave blocks as Villa went in search of an equaliser.
United, bottom of the table and now 12 points from safety, were good value for their win.
WHAT IS NEEDED
Because of the circumstances, given the importance of preparing for the forthcoming campaign right now, it is impossible not to view any of United’s matches through a certain prism; one which highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the squad at Wilder’s disposal and reveals whether or not it is equipped to deliver another promotion.
The meeting with Dean Smith’s side, who saw Ollie Watkins hit the crossbar, exposed a number of issues the 53-year-old must address. Assuming, of course, he is tasked with overseeing the rebuilding process. They include an acute shortage of centre-halves, with Phil Jagielka’s controversial sending-off leaving United with only two fit choices for Saturday’s meeting with Southampton. United’s lack of pace in attack is also evident, although Oliver Burke’s introduction following the veteran’s exit addressed this situation somewhat.
SHOWERED WITH PRAISE
Before the game, Wilder had subjected Villa to the type of love bombing usually reserved for a Unification Church fete; describing the absent Jack Grealish as the “best player in England” and lavishing praise on their history and status.
If it was a ploy to lull the visitors into a false sense of security, Wilder’s methods initially worked when McGoldrick scored for the seventh time in a surprisingly prolific season midway through the opening period. Surprising because, for much of last term, the former Republic of Ireland international appeared to have lost his shooting boots. But confidence is a powerful weapon in elite level sport and McGoldrick, showing terrific endeavour to reach Baldock’s cross, can now add goals to his extensive box of tricks.
SPOTLIGHT ON THE STRIKER
Rhian Brewster’s own reserves of belief and conviction have gone the other way in recent months, rapidly diminishing as he struggled for both form and game time following his record breaking move from Liverpool.
The youngster, a £23.5m signing from the reigning champions, spent much of the evening on the periphery of the contest after being handed a rare start. But, paired with McGoldrick, he produced flashes of the ability which persuaded United to invest what, by their own standards at least, is a significant sum in his services. Just before the interval, Brewster threaded a perfectly weighted pass through a crowd of players towards Fleck. After the Scot returned the favour, the youngster unleashed a vicious low drive which would have troubled Emiliano Martinez had it been a foot either side. Another feint, turn and run early in the second, which only ended when he was crowded out by the massed ranks of Villa’s rearguard, confirmed Brewster is worth persevering with as United prepare for the second tier.
Watkins, one of the players Wilder had targeted during the summer before money and politics got in the way, was Villa’s liveliest performer as the spotlight began to fall on Smith’s team selection. With Marvelous Nakamba in midfield, the visitors appeared better suited to spending long spells out of possession. Predictably, they saw plenty of the ball without ever really doing too much with it, although Watkins did glance a header onto the woodwork soon after the restart. Earlier, Betrand Traore had spurned a glorious chance to equalise by shooting wide from close range.
Instead, rather than any great input from the bench, it took Jagielka’s dismissal just before the hour mark to change the dynamic of the match. The defender was sent-off for bringing down Anwar El Ghazi as he darted towards the penalty area. After initially deciding a caution would suffice, referee Robert Jones was instructed to view the incident again on a pitchside monitor and upgraded yellow to red. At first glance it appeared a terribly harsh decision and one wonders if it is now worth defenders even attempting to make challenges after all.