Sheffield Re-United: The story of Sheffield United's win over Burnley, as they waved goodbye to the Premier League in the best fashion possible
Terry wasn’t actually going to the game. But he was standing outside Bramall Lane, peering through the railings towards the front of the main stand and bloody glad to be there.
“It feels like I’m getting my life back,” the fortysomething said, his voice cracking with emotion. “This club is my life, the lads I go with are my family and, for the past year or so, all of that’s been taken away.”
If anyone is in any doubt what football means to people, football you actually get involved with rather than watching on an HD flatscreen, they should talk to guys like Tel. Or the woman he was chatting to who couldn’t afford a ticket either after losing her job at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sheffield United’s match against Burnley was a Premier League dead rubber, with the hosts relegation to the Championship being confirmed six matches ago. But the performance was instructive because, playing in front of their supporters for the first time in 14 months, United suddenly began to resemble the team which finished ninth last season. Not the one that has creaked, coughed and spluttered its way through a campaign which has not only cost the club its top-flight status but also former manager Chris Wilder.
“I was delighted for the fans and delighted for the players to get a win in front of the fans,” caretaker Paul Heckingbottom said, after watching David McGoldrick’s effort ensure United waved goodbye to the division in the best possible fashion. “It’s been tough, we know it has, but I thought they deserved it."
PEERING INTO THE FUTURE
Tasked with trying to organise an orderly exit from the competition, Heckingbottom has warned more times than he probably cares to remember in recent weeks that how United finish the 2020/21 fixture schedule will influence how they start next term.
“If we can keep this group together, I believe we’ll have a great shout,” Heckingbottom said, again refusing to be drawn on whether he might still take the reins on a permanent basis. “We’ve got to win more games in that division than we have in this one, we all know that. But I’ve told the players afterwards I believe they can do it.”
Although there will be changes, no matter how hard those in charge try to convince otherwise, United went about their business with an energy and industry which suggests they might prosper in the Championship. Particularly as their latest body of work also contained nuggets of genuine quality; including the shot from McGoldrick which left Will Norris, in for the injured Nick Pope, grasping at thin air as the ball nestled in the bottom corner of his net.
Partnering United’s leading goalscorer in attack for the third match in succession, teenager Daniel Jebbison also cut an impressive figure in attack; his desire frequently turning what appeared to be lost causes into genuine opportunities. One such occasion came right at the end of the first half when Charlie Taylor, who thought he had enough time to take 10 let alone two touches, was suddenly harassed into conceding a corner which Chris Basham nearly scrambled home. Already a formidable physical specimen, the 17-year-old will mature into a pretty fearsome unit after a summer inside the Steelphalt Acadrmy’s weights room.
AARON YET AGAIN
As you would expect of a squad stuffed full of streetfighters, Burnley had their moments. When they did, however, Sean Dyche’s men found Aaron Ramsdale in imperious form. After watching Chris Wood flash an early header wide from Dwight McNeil’s corner, Ramsdale produced an excellent block to deny his England under-21 team mate. Early in the second period, unaware that an offside flag was about to be raised, he also did well to prevent Wood firing home on the turn.
“We’ve asked a lot of these players over the course of the season and petered out a bit towards the end,” Dyche said. “We didn’t really find the quality we needed to open the game up. But I’m not going to question a squad that gives us so much. I just think the edge has come off us a little.”
At their finest under Wilder, who twice led United to promotion before departing in March, United were an irresistible mix of enthusiasm, purpose and conviction. With Jack O’Connell, Sander Berge, Oli McBurnie and Billy Sharp all ruled-out through injury, the group which faced Burnley didn’t pose the same threat as the one which entered the first national lockdown. But it felt much more like it, particularly with Ben Osborn scurrying away in midfield and Jebbison continuing to irritate Jimmy Dunne and James Tarlowski. At the other end of the pitch, John Egan, captain in Sharp’s absence, marshalled Wood well. On one of the rare occasions he allowed the Burnley striker to escape his clutches, Ramsdale came to the rescue. Rhian Brewster, who received a great reception from the supporters when he was introduced during the closing stages, also showed more in 12 minutes than he has in the previous 120. Perhaps, testing Norris’ handling with a low drive from the edge of the box, United’s record signing also needs an audience to perform.
McGoldrick has been one of the few United players to achieve a degree of consistency since September’s return to action. With Jebbison doing his running, McGoldrick, aged 33, is able to concentrate on what he does best. Which is receiving balls, such as the one Enda Stevens presented him with early on, in deep lying positions and then drifting forward almost unnoticed before using precision rather than power to beat goalkeepers.
“Everyone really battled out there and then, when it mattered, we showed the quality to win the game,” Heckingbottom said.