Sheffield United received the red carpet treatment upon arrival at Loftus Road, with Ian Holloway describing them as a “fantastic club” in his programme notes and one well-known columnist comparing David Brooks to Gareth Bale.
Unfortunately for Chris Wilder, Queens Park Rangers’ hospitality did not extend to gifting his side the win which would have seen them remain on top of the Championship table.
With Jamal Blackman and George Baldock both returning to South Yorkshire nursing injuries, it proved a frustrating evening for the United manager and his staff. Despite falling short of their usual high-standards, the visitors still carved enough opportunities to have taken something from this game.
Idrissa Sylla’s goal, which proved enough to hand Rangers their second win over a promotion chasing team in the space three days, was as bizarre as it was costly. Blackman appeared to have the situation under control after dashing-off his line to collect a routine high ball. But, falling awkwardly after climbing above Cameron Carter-Vickers, the youngster lost his grip and presented the former Anderlecht centre-forward with the type of chance it would have been harder to miss than score.
Although Rangers’ industry caused United problems, Wilder will regard this result as three points dropped given the openings United enjoyed. Leon Clarke, asked to reprise his partnership with Brooks following last month’s win over Sheffield Wednesday, spurned one before drawing an impressive reaction save from Alex Smithies. Jack O’Connell was also guilty of midjudging his angles after being left unmarked inside the Rangers’ box.
Some uncharacteristically loose defending apart, there was precious little wrong with the quality of United’s play. But the outcome, which sees them slip to third in the table, will serve as a timely reminder that profligacy rarely goes unpunished. Especially at a ground where, despite languishing six places behind the play-off pace, Holloway’s side have been beaten only once at home in the league this term.
Much has changed, including their respective divisions, since the previous meeting between these two clubs nearly three years ago. So much, in fact, that only one member of the United team which, despite its third tier status ended Rangers’ hopes of a run in the FA Cup, remains on the books at Bramall Lane. Nor is the impact of Wilder’s revolution limited to personnel.
While their opponents fight a legal battle with the English Football League after being found guilty of breaching its Financial Fair Play regulations, the visitors’ are focused on reaching the top-flight by more traditional and prudent means. Brooks, a product of their Steelphalt Academy youth system, caught the eye with some imaginative play while John Lundstram, a summer signing from Oxford, impressed in midfield after deputising for the suspended John Fleck.
Wilder had refused to comment on Rangers’ wrangle with the governing body before travelling to the capital. Whether his silence was born-out of solidarity with a fellow manager or fear of saying something which might end-up being pinned to the home dressing room wall, United’s actions en route to west London spoke louder than words.
Armed with a sensible budget and despite basing his transfer strategy on judicious rather than extravagant buys, Wilder has fashioned a squad capable of beating the best the competition has to offer since leading United to promotion during his first season at the helm. So to has Holloway who, despite being in charge of Crystal Palace when Rangers’ troubles with the EFL began, could be tasked with keeping their heads above water in the face of a reported £40m fine. Fresh from last weekend’s victory over Wolves, Holloway’s players entered this match confident of claiming another big scalp.
Taking an early lead provided an extra shot of self-belief although United created enough opportunities to drag themselves level before Clarke saw an effort disallowed when substitute Billy Sharp, who delivered the cross, was adjudged offside.
The best, after Enda Stevens had punched a hole in the Rangers’ rearguard but failed to find Brooks lurking on the edge of the six yard box, fell to O’Connell. However, with the goal at his mercy, the defender blazed high and wide at the far post.
With Clayton Donaldson and John Lundstram among three changes to their first choice eleven, United’s evening got off to the worst possible start when Sylla rolled the ball into an empty net after Blackman had collided with Carter-Vickers. Predictably, losing one of the lynchpins of their defence affected United’s rhythm although his replacement, Simon Moore, produced a superb save to prevent the Guinea international claiming a spectacular second after trying his luck from 35 yards.
United, who had already seen O’Connell blaze high and wide despite being left unmarked at Alex Smithies left hand post, saw Clarke follow suit after being picked-out by Brooks. Down on the touchline, Wilder’s frustration was evident. But Rangers, attacking with purpose and numbers, were causing United some issues going forward while openings were being wasted at the other end. Clarke did find the back of the net during the closing stages but referee Keith Stroud intervened when his assistant ruled Sharp had strayed too far forward.