Sheffield United: How 3-3 draw at Aston Villa last season proved catalyst for Blades' promotion... and a turning point for Dean Henderson
At the time, it felt like a defeat which had the potential to derail their promotion bid. Three months later, it was hailed as a turning point which helped get their Premier League push over the line.
Aston Villa 3, Sheffield United 3. February 8, 2019; the night Billy Sharp's hat-trick saw him go past 100 goals for his boyhood Blades and give United a seemingly-unassailable 3-0 lead, which would have taken them to the top of the Championship table.
Instead, three Villa goals in the last 10 minutes - sub Andre Green's equaliser coming deep into injury time - shocked United and their fans, leading to some doubts about whether the mental scars would dent their promotion hopes.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Sharp later remembered.
"I'd scored a hat-trick at Villa Park, we all thought we’d won the game and we would have gone top of the league. The second goal was also my 100th for Sheffield United, and it was so nearly the perfect night.
“It all changed very quickly and we were devastated afterwards because we threw away two points and that could have hurt us. Really hurt us. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise - we could have gone top and got a bit complacent, a bit big time.
“Who knows? But it was a kick up the backside that we probably needed, and it stood us in good stead to be where we are today."
The game was also seen as a turning point for Dean Henderson, the young goalkeeper on loan from Manchester United. By his own admission, Henderson had 'taken his foot off the gas' and believes karma came for him in a painful way.
He was beaten to a corner too easily by Tyrone Mings for 3-1 and then spilled a shot to the feet of Tammy Abraham for Villa's second, which really turned the mood inside Villa Park. By the time Green outjumped George Baldock and headed home deep into injury time, the writing was on the wall.
The inquest began on the pitch after the final whistle before continuing inside the away dressing room, with tempers threatening to boil over.
“I wasn’t actually in the dressing room after the game to see what happened," Sharp added.
"I just wanted to win the game, go over and celebrate with the fans - top of the league… brilliant. Then bang, all of a sudden it was taken away from us. We went over to clap the fans and I had to do an interview on Sky straight after, although I really didn’t want to.
“I wanted to get back in the dressing room and start ranting. But as I walked down the tunnel, it was all quiet. I put the matchball and the man-of-the-match award on the floor outside the dressing room, because I didn’t want to go in with them. Then I walked in.
“Everyone was silent and I started my rant. ‘Lads, what the f*** are we doing? We can’t….’ Then the gaffer just said ‘Bill, leave it - it’s been dealt with’. I was told afterwards that a few things went off. But that’s because all the players care.”
One player later apologised to Henderson for his post-match reaction before United boarded the coach back north, but the pain didn't end there as the squad were made to watch the video of that last ten minutes when they returned to Shirecliffe for training.
More than one player received a roasting from boss Chris Wilder that day, before he addressed his squad as a whole and openly questioned their credentials. “Is this us now?” he asked them. “Is our season done? Are we just going to peter out?”
That proved a masterstroke... even if not everyone appreciated them at the time. "Jesus..." remembered Henderson, at the memory of both the game and the post-mortem afterwards.
“I’ve never felt so bad, for days.
“Because I’m a confident boy, people look at me and say ‘Ah he’ll be all right. He’ll be sound’. But deep down, I’m just the same as everyone else and sometimes, it does hurt. I didn’t want to come back in after the Villa game. Then the manager called a meeting and I’m thinking: ‘Oh no’.
“We walk in and the goals are on the big screen and I’m thinking again: ‘Oh no’. Honestly, I wanted the ground to swallow me up. With how I felt at that moment, I could have quit football. Retired on the spot. It’s maybe something only goalkeepers will understand, but those moments are horrible.
“Looking back, though, it was the turning point of our season. I’m sure any of the boys would say the same… Aston Villa away made Sheffield United go to the Premier League."
United, and Henderson, bounced back from that Villa disappointment to keep SEVEN clean sheets on the bounce, which ultimately helped them win automatic promotion with the Championship's best defensive record.
"It showed how far we’d come that we were so down after Villa away, despite not actually losing," said defender John Egan.
"To me, it showed that the winning mentality of everyone in the changing room was so, so strong. After Villa, we kept seven clean sheets on the bounce, winning six and drawing one of those games. That showed how much we wanted it."
*The pain of Villa Park is covered in full in Danny Hall's book, We're not going to Wembley, which charts United's promotion season. See www.verticaleditions.com for more information, or to order