Sheffield United: Blades beaten by Burton Albion in pre-season
It was here at the Pirelli Stadium 18 months ago when, after making a ridiculously strong start to the Championship campaign, Sheffield United dream of securing back to back promotions effectively died.
Fresh from lifting the League One title during Chris Wilder's first season at the helm, they finished their match with Burton Albion staring down at the rest of the division. The only trouble was Paul Coutts, whose poise and positional sense made him the fulcrum of the team, was on his way to hospital after breaking a leg during the first half of a hard-fought but deserved 3-1 victory. Thirty-two games and 10 wins later, Wilder's men were 10th and wondering what might have been.
Now, with Coutts allowed to leave the club after United did go up last term, a new band of heroes has emerged at Bramall Lane. They include David McGoldrick; a player supposedly too injury prone and too inconsistent for relegated Ipswich Town but who is now preparing for the big time.
After being awarded a contract by Wilder following a successful trial period, the centre-forward emerged as one of the driving forces behind United's return to the top-flight after 12 years away. On the evidence of this friendly with Burton Albion, coupled with his performance against Real Betis four days earlier, McGoldrick will play an equally important role in the Premier League next term.
Looking leaner, stronger and fitter than perhaps at any time in his career, the Republic of Ireland international delighted the crowd with a series of flicks, tricks and touches before being withdrawn midway through the second period. Drifting deep into midfield one moment before darting forward the next, this is a player at the very top of his game. The only disappointment was, for some inexplicable reason, McGoldrick failed to write his name onto the scoresheet as Albion, managed by Wilder's predecessor Nigel Clough, snatched the spoils when Marcus Harness fired home from long distance deep into added time.
Although United will be disappointed by the result - especially after beating a team from La Liga in Portugal last week - Wilder saw enough to confirm their preparations for the new campaign are progressing largely as planned.
“We don’t like to lose so we’re disappointed with that,” he said. “They came up with that bit of magic right at the end.
“But there were enough positives out there, we’ve got some more minutes under our belts, fitness-wise we’re moving in the right direction and our overall play, a couple of sloppy periods apart, was better than last time. So that’s good.
“Didzy, in the first quarter-of-an-hour or so, could have had a hat-trick. We created plenty against a side I respect and who are managed by someone I have huge amount of respect for as well. Now the challenge is to keep picking it up even more in our next one. We know we’ve got to keep doing that, in all aspects, with the challenge ahead of us.”
Captain Billy Sharp was on target, Oliver Norwood showcased his repertoire of tackles and passes while Callum Robinson, the club's new record transfer signing, made a cameo appearance during the closing stages. Enda Stevens also caught the eye with a series of driving runs along the flank while Richard Stearman, who earlier this month saw Phil Jagielka return to the club, produced another strong performance at the heart of defence.
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Despite Robinson's introduction - the former Preston North End player's pace will prove a real asset - United were unable to translate their superiority after the interval into goals.
“I thought Callum showed us what he’s going to bring to the table out there,” Wilder, who confirmed Ravel Morrison had accepted a one year contract ahead of kick-off, said. “He’s trained more than anyone in the last day or so. He’s really pushed himself. The lad can play and he’s quick, everyone saw that out there.”
“The boys who have come in, because we’ve got quite a unique way of playing, will take time to get to grips with it,” he continued. “We show them all the videos, give them the instructions and what not. But the only way they’ll really get across things is by playing matches and that’s another one they’ve now got under their belts. That’s what it’s really all about at the moment and they’ll be better for it.
“We’re not there yet, though. I’m aware we’re not the finished article and there’s still work (in the transfer market) to be done. We’re putting in a lot (of work) behind the scenes and that will carry on.”
After McGoldrick had twice gone close - first with a shot which was smothered by Kieran O'Hara before seeing an overhead kick sail just over the crossbar - it was Sharp who broke the deadlock by heading home Stevens' cross.
Brayford, one of two former United players in Albion's squad, restored parity just before the interval but Wilder's men wrestled back control after the break. Robinson caused problems after McGoldrick and Stevens had both enjoyed chances. But Harness ensured Clough's men had the final word, unleashing a vicious 25 yard effort which left Simon Moore grasping at thin air with only seconds remaining.
Burton Albion: O'Hara, Brayford (Morley 85), Daniel, Buxton (Templeton 75), Wallace (Vale 78), Fraser (Hart 87), Harness, Akins, Sbarra (Hutchinson 67), Nartey (Anderson 80), Boyce (Dolan 87). Not used: Hawkins.
Sheffield United: Moore, Baldock (K Freeman 62), Stevens, Fleck (Slater 62), Basham (Jagielka 62), L Freeman (Lundstram 62), Sharp (Robinson 74), Norwood (Duffy 62), McGoldrick (Clarke 62), Stearman (Egan 62), Bryan (O'Connell 62). Not used: Dewhurst, York, Brunt, Boyes, Young.
Referee: Andy Haines (Tyne and Wear).