Mike Bassett, modern football and yet more misery: The story of Sheffield United's defeat by Crystal Palace
There’s a scene, midway through the film Mike Bassett: England Manager, when the character around whom the whole story revolves busts a blood vessel and plenty more besides eviscerating his players during an expletive ridden half-time rant.
“What’s wrong with you? Has your f*****g bottle gone? Get your f*****g fingers out,” began the beleaguered boss’ tirade. “You’ve done naff all and the crowd are shouting at me, but they should be shouting at you. Pay attention to me when I’m f*****g talking.”
Yes, it was a work of fiction. Yes, Bassett was lampooned for being a dinosaur. But there comes a time when a good old fashioned rollicking is more effective than a tactics session on a laptop. From Sheffield United’s perspective, as they meandered towards their latest defeat of what has been a thoroughly lamentable season, the midway point of Saturday’s game against Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace was one such occasion. Insipid, lacking aggression and anything resembling conviction, they were lucky to be only trailing by one goal to nil.
“We were beaten by the better side on the day,” Heckingbottom conceded, after watching strikes from Christian Benteke and Eberechi Eze bookend the match. “That feeling, about wanting the season to be over, has been here for a while. Personally I can’t stand it because you are always playing for something. But it’s tough, and you can’t deny that.
“One of the reasons I enjoy working with this group, though, is their honesty. The honesty they have to try and keep on going.”
EZE DOES IT
You can’t blame Heckingbottom for trying to gloss over United’s failings. After all, having discovered he is a contender to take charge on a permanent basis, the club’s under-23’s coach is trying to get a tune out of a team which, on the evidence of this fixture, now starts a game expecting to get beat.
But modern football’s obsession with methods, philosophies and science means he is unlikely to have gone all ‘Bassett’ when it returned to the dressing room for the break. United couldn’t have complained if he had though. After conceding less than two minutes into another forgettable encounter, the ease with which Eze was allowed to score Palace’s second was a gift for the newspaper headline writers.
“When you are where we are, at the bottom of the table, letting one in after 90 seconds knocked the stuffing out of us,” Heckingbottom continued. “With how good Palace are on the counter, it set things up perfectly for them. We had some chances, but we couldn’t take them, when we had a bit of momentum later on.”
THE EZE WAY OUT
Palace mathematically confirmed their survival after becoming the 14th team to win at Bramall Lane this season, although Hodgson insisted afterwards he never felt they were in danger of going down. United entered the contest already consigned to the Championship. And little wonder, given the carelessness in possession and reluctance to put in a challenge on display here.
There were, however, a couple of notable exceptions. Two, maybe three at a push, players who could be satisfied with their efforts. One was Aaron Ramsdale, who produced two superb saves to ensure the scoreline remained respectable. The other, teenage debutant Daniel Jebbison, made his presence felt in attack after being introduced just past the hour mark.
“Daniel deserved his chance,” said Heckingbottom, who also saw John Fleck show a little tenacity. “I’ve always been clear, I’ll only put these boys in if they’re good enough and he definitely warranted his run.”
FAR TOO EZE
Benteke’s opener, which took a deflection en route into the back of Ramsdale’s net, set the tone for the afternoon. United appeared in little danger when Eze, a one-time target of their former manager Chris Wilder, picked up the ball midway into their half. But with neither Kean Bryan nor John Egan doing anything to impede his progress, he breezed towards the penalty area before finding the Belgian with a cross. George Baldock tried to block the shot but helped it across the line instead.
“Eberechi has had a difficult period, because it’s been a baptism of fire for him,” Hodgson said, tracing the 22-year-old’s progress following his summer move from QPR. “It’s not easy for him to get on the ball against the likes of Manchester City and show those silky skills he did today, when there was a bit more space in midfield.
“But he was bold when he got on the ball and, as we know he can do, drove it forward when he had it.”
In other words doing everything, although Hodgson was too polite to say, United didn’t.
PALACE EZE HOME
With Palace allowed to strong together passes at will, it was a surprise they had to wait until the dying embers of the game to stretch their advantage, with Eze taking advantage of substitute John Lundstram’s poor excuse of a challenge to claim his fourth of the season following an unfortunate ricochet off Fleck.
Ramsdale produced a simply stunning block to prevent Benteke converting Wilfried Zaha’s centre, before touching another attempt from the Palace centre-forward onto a post. United fashioned a couple of opportunities, which were inevitably wasted, when Egan screwed over from close range after Sander Berge, making his first start since December, should have been awarded a penalty after being impeded by Tyrick Mitchell. But it was not until Jebbison’s introduction that they posed any physical threat to the visitors’ rearguard. Aged 17, the Canadian born striker contributed more during his 25 minute run out than others did in 90.
“If we’d taken our moments, things might have been different,” Heckingbottom said, reciting what through no fault of his own is becoming a tired and boring script. “But we didn’t and, at this level, that’s what makes the difference.”