Sheffield United are ‘feeling unbreakable’ after potentially ‘life-changing’ victory over Leeds United
“The biggest game of our lives,” was how one member of the opposition had described it and, despite both managers’ best efforts to persuade otherwise, that was certainly how it felt inside Elland Road as both teams emerged from the sanctuary of the tunnel and entered the bear pit.
Sheffield United certainly played like it too, producing a performance loaded with courage and laced with guile as Chris Basham's second-half effort wrestled control of the race for automatic promotion back into their own hands.
Although Chris Wilder and Marcelo Bielsa were right to remind that nothing had been decided on Saturday afternoon, this certainly felt like a pivotal moment. Ninety-minutes of breathless football confirmed the visitors possess the character required to navigate their way through the remaining eight matches of the season and, perhaps more tellingly, exposed some psychological flaws in Leeds' armoury. Goalkeeper Kiko Casilla was sent-off during the closing stages as Bielsa's men unravelled and, betraying his frustration at the final outcome, the Argentine's awkward encounter with a television journalist was the talk of social media afterwards.
"It would be life-changing for a lot of footballers in our dressing room," Basham admitted, confirming the potential implications of United's latest result. "With the budget we've got and the money we've spent, to be in the position we're in is pretty remarkable really.
"But there's a lot of lads in there who are destined to go all the way to the top. Hopefully it's with us. We just feel unbreakable at the moment if I'm being honest."
It will not have escaped United's notice that the same can not be said for Leeds, who slipped to third in the Championship - a place and a point behind Wilder's men - following Basham's clinical finish. Pontus Jansson, whose exhortations before kick-off had whipped the home crowd into frenzy, was among those who appeared panicked rather than inspired by the sense of occasion. The Swede, who replaced Casilla between the posts following his red card, cut an increasingly melodramatic figure as the contest wore on. But Jansson's histrionics, despite being lapped-up by the majority of those inside the stadium, appeared more of a distraction to his own players than United, with the otherwise dependable Liam Cooper making a costly mistake before Basham pounced.
"Mentally, it's massive for us," he continued. "Coming here, I was thinking that for the first 20 minutes or so it was going to be all about riding out the storm. So to do that, and then actually get the win, is brilliant."
Despite their expansive, attack-minded approach United's progress in recent weeks has been built on an implacable defence. The clean sheet against Leeds, despite coming under severe pressure for long periods of the contest, was its seventh in succession. Over 11 hours of football have now passed since they conceded three goals towards the end of last month's draw with Aston Villa; a record made all the more impressive given the circumstances and high-stakes.
"The most we felt it, squeaky bum time, was there but the gaffer showed us a video of what happened and that really set us on our way," Basham explained. "That set us back on our way and the situation we're in is actually helping us spread our wings. There's no heavy shirts in there, as he (Wilder) likes to say."
"It was just about showing us how to see out a game," Basham continued. "He asked us why we were making certain decision at certain times because, as players, we can all be a bit vulnerable at times. Now, we've shown grit and determination. There's lads chucking themselves in front of balls and making blocks. A ball even got punctured not so long back because something threw themselves towards it so hard."
United adopted a curious approach ahead of the trip to West Yorkshire, choosing to shower Bielsa's squad with praise instead of stoking the atmosphere by talking-up their own qualities. For much of the first-half, which saw Pablo Hernandez, Patrick Bamford and Jack Harrison all miss chances, Wilder's decision to label Leeds as "the best team in the division" appeared justified. But as the afternoon wore on, so his players began to establish a foothold although they benefited from a huge slice of good fortune when Tyler Roberts saw a shot rebound back off a post soon after the interval.
Basham, deployed in midfield as part of a tactical reshuffle, had endured a difficult start to the fixture as he struggled to get to grips with his new role. But when Billy Sharp escaped Cooper's clutches, the 30-year-old was alive to the possibilities. After charging forward in support of his centre-forward, Basham collected the ball and threaded it beyond the advancing Casilla who, after Bielsa had made his third and final change, was dismissed for upending Sharp.
"We’ve got talent, lads who can change a game out of nothing,” Basham said. “Just as importantly, though, a desire to keep on going.”
Leeds United: Casilla, Ayling (Dallas 78), Cooper, Bamford, Alioski, Roberts, Jansson, Hernandez, Harrison (Douglas 56), Phillips, Klich (Clarke 78). Not used: Peacock-Farrell, Berardi, Shackleton, Gotts.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham (Lundstram 90), Egan, O'Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Cranie, Sharp, McGoldrick (Dowell 87). Not used: Moore, Hogan, Coutts, Stearman, Duffy.
Referee: David Coote (Nottinghamshire).