No verve, vigour or zip - 'sorry' Sheffield United leave Chris Wilder clutching for answers after defeat at Newcastle United
Perched on top of a hill near the famous Leazes Terrace and the site of an ancient gallows, St James’ Park looms large over a city whose very sense of being is shaped by football.
It is a symbol. A cathedral. A famous place of worship where, before the Covid-19 pandemic made its way to these shores, around 40,000 devotees regularly filed through the turnstiles to watch Newcastle’s players represent not only their club but also the region as a whole.
Managed and captained by lifelong supporters, Sheffield United are doing something similar in South Yorkshire. The county might be home to five different sporting tribes. But after twice being promoted since appointing Chris Wilder, United have also become standard bearers for an area used to being let down by politicians and so puts its faith in the beautiful game instead.
Given the strength of the relationship between these teams and their people, it seemed almost cruel that this fixture was taking place behind doors. And make no mistake, despite its significance, the funereal atmosphere inside the ground had a tangible effect on the performance of both sides.
Both United and Newcastle did their best to rouse themselves, with Wilder and Steve Bruce constantly barking instructions from the touchline. But neither team, and United in particular, were ever quite able to summon their usual verve, vigour and zip.
The difference here was not only John Egan’s dismissal which, given Jack O’Connell’s continuing absence leaves Wilder nursing a huge headache ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Manchester United, but also the fact Newcastle were more ruthless, more clinical and approached their work with greater attention to detail.
Wilder felt all three goals United conceded were preventable. He also, alluding to the inspirational power of the visitors’ fans, challenged some of those at his disposal to “give themselves a shake.”
“I thought we looked a little bit sorry for ourselves and that’s what really disappointed me,” Wilder said. “I haven’t seen that for a long time and I didn’t like it.
“Some of the lads need to give themselves a shake. We have to be at our maximum to get a result in this division, we can’t play at 75 per cent. We have to go full tilt and we are off the pace at little bit at the moment. I can’t quite put my finger on it because, physically, the numbers all stack up.”
United arrived in the North-East ranked seventh in the table and knowing that a win would lift them to fifth. But they had also made the journey nursing a genuine grievance, after a technological malfunction had forced them to settle for a draw at Aston Villa four days earlier.
Oliver Norwood, whose free-kick had been carried into the back of the net by Orjan Nyland only for the Hawkeye system to fail, looked to take out his frustration by pinging a series of dangerous set-pieces towards Martin Dubravka. But it was Newcastle who fashioned the best opportunity of the opening half when Miguel Almiron released Joelinton.
Even from the top of the Jackie Milburn stand, Wilder’s sigh of relief was audible when the Brazilian shot tamely.
With John Fleck returning to the starting eleven after recovering from the injury which forced him to miss the trip to the West Midlands, United had earlier created some chances of their own. Jack Robinson was inches away from meeting Norwood’s centre towards the far post before another cross from the midfielder forced Martin Dubravka to scramble clear.
But disaster struck soon after the interval when Egan, who had already been cautioned following a minor confrontation with Joelinton, was dismissed for hauling back the former Hoffenheim centre-forward. Perhaps, on the evidence of the first-half, the Republic of Ireland defender would have been better advised to simply let Joelinton dart through – even though he later netted for the first time in the competition since August.
“The first yellow was for nothing,” Wilder said. “John tries to take a kick quickly, their lad stops the ball, and then they stand up to each other.
“I had no problem with what either of them did and, I’ve got to say, both Steve Bruce and I were stunned their both got booked for that.”
“Mentally, it’s strange,” Bruce, Wilder’s opposite number, admitted when asked about the challenge of competing in front of four empty stands. “It feels like a reserve game, and we’ve all been to those, so you’ve got to work so hard to get your usual intensity.”
Egan had only just reached the dressing room when Newcastle took the lead. Matt Ritchie’s pass into the area should have been cut out by Enda Stevens but the wing-back, usually one of the more dependable players, made a hash of his attempted clearance, allowing Allan Saint-Maximin to score.
“The goals we’ve conceded have been poor ones,” Wilder said. “For three goals to go in the way they did, Newcastle didn’t really have to work that hard for them. And it shouldn’t have been like that.”
Despite finding themselves at a numerical disadvantage, United should have drawn level soon afterwards when Billy Sharp escaped his marker in front of goal. But, after stooping to meet George Baldock’s cross, he directed his header wide.
Ritchie ensured that error was punished in the most devastating manner possible when he powered home from distance past Dean Henderson. It was a superb finish but the Scot was afforded too much time and space before, as United’s rearguard fathomed how to deal with the situation, being allowed to pick his spot.
Newcastle’s third – Almiron squaring for Joelinton after getting in behind – was simplicity itself.