How and why Sheffield United finally have their first win of the Premier League season
John Egan sank to his knees, Aaron Ramsdale punched the air and Chris Wilder, who had spent the final seconds of this match with his back turned towards the pitch, looked emotionally drained and thoroughly exhausted.
After 185 days and at the 21st time of asking, Sheffield United were finally able to savour a Premier League win. It came courtesy of a 73rd minute penalty from substitute Billy Sharp. And it was deserved too, although predictably not without a huge scare as Jayden Bogle nearly conspired to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory by chesting past Aaron Ramsdale as referee Andy Madley put his whistle to his mouth. The relief inside Bramall Lane, as the ball trickled just past the right side of the post, was almost palpable. Newcastle were reduced to 10 men, when Ryan Fraser saw red just before the interval. But as Wilder noted afterwards, the result “appeared to be coming” even before he walked.
BUILDING ON BRISTOL
Although last weekend’s FA Cup triumph over Bristol Rovers was welcome, it is success in this competition United crave. So low has their confidence plummeted in recent months, however, the two are now inextricably linked. That went a long way towards explaining why, until those nervous final stages, United’s passing suddenly appeared much more precise and purposeful.
They went about their business with much more conviction too, revealing the wisdom of Wilder’s decision to select all but one of the starting eleven which had appeared in the south-west. On this evidence he has got his ‘old’ United back. The one which, only a season after gaining promotion from the Championship, finished ninth in the table last term.
“We had an identity, and that’s something we’ve talked about a lot,” Wilder, whose side are now nine points from safety, said. “Perhaps we’d lost that a bit with how things have been going. But that was ‘us’ again - going for it, handbrake off in and out of possession.”
THE RED CARD
After lamenting their bad luck since September’s return to action, with injuries and illness eating into his already paper thin squad, Wilder and United finally got the break they have been craving when Fraser was dismissed just before the interval.
Only moments after being cautioned for a challenge on John Fleck as they jostled to retrieve Jayden Bogle’s blocked shot, the former AFC Bournemouth and Ipswich Town winger received his second yellow card of the evening after charging into David McGoldrick.
Guilty of being clumsy rather than malicious, it was a soft sending-off with Madley maybe being influenced by the reaction of United’s bench. Either way, Wilder later insisted United were long overdue a slice of good fortune.
“I agree with the two yellow cards for Ryan, but I don’t agree with the penalty,” Steve Bruce said, referring to Madley’s interpretation of the incident involving Sharp and Federico Fernandez, when the Argentine was adjudged to have handled the ball. “I don’t see how it’s deliberate and technology is supposed to sort that.”
FOR ONCE, WILDER OFFERS SUPPORT
Despite briefly finding themselves on opposite sides of the Steel City divide, before Bruce’s five month reign at Sheffield Wednesday came to an abrupt and controversial end a year-and-a-half ago, Wilder and his rival across the technical area enjoy a good relationship.
Indeed, despite joking Bruce deserved “a standing ovation” from the home crowd before Newcastle’s last visit to South Yorkshire, Wilder then leapt to the defence of the former United centre-half; explaining why, even though Wednesday’s supporters felt justifiably aggrieved, the temptation of managing the club you support is impossible to resist.
Where the two men differ, however, is how they are perceived by fellow fans. Whereas Wilder still enjoys cult-hero status, thanks to his two promotions, man of the people persona and almost telepathic understanding of what makes United’s followers tick, Bruce has been criticised, caricatured and labelled a footballing dinosaur.
Even though his approach, to many outside of the North-East at least, is no more conservative than the one employed by Rafa Benitez; his much loved predecessor. This result, however, will not improve his standing.
With huge swathes of the North-East declaring open season on Bruce, even Macdonald, Newcastle’s legendary and outspoken former centre-forward, felt compelled to join in before kick-off - accusing Bruce of misusing and therefore abusing Callum Wilson.
It was a powerful accusation and potentially damaging accusation; particularly coming from someone of Super Mac’s stature.
Privately, Bruce will have been angered by that charge, although he could have been forgiven for carrying out some sort of punishment after watching the England marksman head over the crossbar from close range midway through the first-half.
United were in the ascendancy either side of that miss, although Ben Osborn did produce a superb block to prevent Isaac Hayden testing Aaron Ramsdale soon after Wilson’s error. Indeed, with McGoldrick also heading over after connecting with Ethan Ampadu’s centre and John Lundstram shooting wide, United’s will have been the more frustrated of the two benches until Fraser’s exit.
Not because of anything their team were doing wrong, Rather that some concerted periods of pressure and clever interchanges, many orchestrated by the enterprising Osborn, had not produced a breakthrough.
SHARP DOES THE BUSINESS
The remaining three-quarters-of-an-hour effectively became a drill of attack versus defence, with United changing their shape and personnel in a bid to prise apart the visitors’ rearguard. In the end, it was an error from Fernandez - swatting the ball away with his hand as he attempted to keep Sharp at bay - which presented United with their breakthrough.
After receiving guidance from VAR and then consulting a replay of duel on a pitchside monitor, Madley pointed to the spot and Sharp did the rest. It was his 100th league goal in United colours and, given the filip it will give United in their battle for survival, one of the most important.