James Shield's Verdict: Sheffield United should remember this legendary half-time rant
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Well, those weren’t the exact ones he used as he eviscerated his players during a legendary half-time rant. But in order to avoid the censors’ wrath, a little paraphrasing is required. Effing, jeffing and blinding, as he jabbed a finger on his chest, Sitton was letting it be known that football isn’t just a test of calibre. Character, bottle and yes, cajones, are required to succeed too.
Sheffield United’s heart isn’t in question. Even after a sobering afternoon at The Den. But now only four points ahead of third placed Middlesbrough, who beat them in midweek, Paul Heckingbottom’s squad know they must show real guts to go on and secure the Championship’s second automatic promotion berth.
Saturday’s match in south London highlighted both the strengths of United’s team and also, quite clearly given the result, the weaknesses which are threatening to undermine its push for Premier League status too. Despite a woeful first-half display, which saw them out-fought and out-thought by Gary Rowett’s men, the visitors’ durability was evident as - inexplicably - they entered the break on level terms; Tommy Doyle’s free-kick cancelling out the first goal of Tom Bradshaw’s match-winning hat-trick. Things were much more even after the interval and, when substitute James McAtee pounced to restore parity again, Millwall appeared to be running on fumes before another defensive lapse allowed the former Barnsley centre-forward to score for a third time with only two minutes remaining.
But the seeds of United’s second defeat in less than 72 hours were sown during the opening stages of what proved a relentless contest. There is no shortage of experience and leadership in their dressing room. The only trouble was, as Heckingbottom himself conceded afterwards, both were notable by their absence during the opening period.
“It’s no use talking about it,” he said. “You’ve got to go out there and show it.”
Heckingbottom insisted United are not in the business of making excuses following this set-back, before helpfully identifying some of those they could offer up during his post-match interview. One, the lunchtime scheduling of an away game less than three days after another vitally important clash, was out of their control. It probably goes a long way towards explaining United’ lethargy before a pep talk sparked them into life.
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But that might also be a symptom of their lack of activity during last month’s transfer window, when a ban on processing new registrations prevented Heckingbottom from refreshing and rejuvenating the options at his disposal. With opponents once again beginning to squeeze Oliver Norwood, United could do with an injection of athleticism in midfield. When he’s fully fit, Doyle can provide this. But with McAtee’s intervention underlining his importance to the cause, coaching staff must discover a way of fielding him and his fellow Manchester City loanee in the same starting eleven without limiting either’s effectiveness. Seven months into the season, that isn’t something they’ve been able to do convincing;y yet; particularly when Iliman Ndiaye is also thrown into the mix.
Ultimately, though, it has now boiled down to bottle. Rediscovering the personality which allows United’s ability to shine through.