Sheffield United departed the Bramall Lane pitch to a chorus of boos following this demoralising defeat to Wigan Athletic.
Manager Nigel Adkins had called for a show of solidarity with his players during the build-up to a match which, both he and Gary Caldwell readily acknowledged, was of crucial importance in the race for Championship football next term.
But United, whose hopes of a morale-boosting victory effectively unravelled in four second-half minutes, were left in no doubt about the home crowd’s verdict on this result.
Will Grigg opened the scoring when he claimed his 13th goal of the season and fifth in as many outings from the penalty spot soon after the re-start. Chris Basham’s sliding challenge on Yanic Wildschut set in motion the chain of events which saw the former Brentford and Walsall marksman power home before Conor McAleny, signed on loan from Everton before Monday’s transfer deadline, doubled Wigan’s lead.
The goals changed the entire complexion of the game and, predictably, the atmosphere inside the stadium.
Neill Collins and Jay McEveley both went close as United attempted to mount another comeback following last month’s 3-3 draw at the DW Stadium. George Long, making his 100th appearance for the club, saved another Grigg penalty in the 76th minute. But, on this occasion, there was to be no dramatic finale. Only serious reflection.
Adkins had dropped a huge hint beforehand that, given the competition’s state-of-play, United would be forced to adopt a more expansive approach between now and the end of the season. Against Wigan, it meant the contest was a shade more open than perhaps either he or Caldwell would have liked during the opening exchanges although it was the visitors who posed the greater threat. McEveley and Dean Hammond were both forced to make scrambled clearances after Wigan had worked the ball patiently upfield but Jose Baxter, having earlier seen a set-piece punched away by Jussi Jaaskelainen, redressed some of the balance with a snap shot from the edge of the box. The midfielder troubled Jaaskelainen again in the 18th minute after creating space with a delightful piece of invention but his chip, with the goalkeeper stranded just off his line, landed wide. As so many third tier games have a tendancy to do, however, what had promised to be an expansive match quickly descended into an armwrestle. Which, Baxter apart, probably suited United better but not those hoping for an ‘edge-of-your-seat’ style thriller. Probing rather than penetration was the order of the day. Until, that was, Basham’s foul on Wildschut prompted an explosive spell from Caldwell’s men.
A sharp bust forward from Grigg put United under pressure as half-time approached while Donervon Daniels attempted to tease his way through from a tight angle until, after being held-up my McEveley, Hammond darted across to intervene. At the other end a free-kick, this time lofted into the area by Paul Coutts, was nodded back across the box by Hammond but the ball was prodded away from Sharp as he prepared to shoot from close-range.
Despite his frame, Conor Sammon had struggled to impose himself physically on Wigan’s centre-halves and was withdrawn during the break. The entrance of his replacament, Che Adams, changed the dynamic of United’s attack but did provide it with an injection of pace. It was Sharp, however, who created the first opportunity of the second period when he forced Jaaskelainen to scramble clear at the near post. Wigan’s response, though, was emphatic with Grigg edging them ahead in the 52nd minute before McAleny doubled their advantage four minutes later.
A powerful run from McEveley punched a hole in Wigan’s rearguard but his shot, across Jaaskelained, flew just past the far post before a header from Collins struck the back of an unwitting marker. In the 74th minute, Long denied Grigg his second of the afternoon after Coutts had been punished for a seemingly inoccuous challenge on Chris McCann. Jaaskelainen watched a curling shot from Adams fly wide following one of several scrambles in from of the Wigan goalkeeper but United were unable to engineer themselves a lifeline.
Sheffield United: Long, Brayford, Basham (Done 70), Coutts, Sharp, Baxter (Campbell-Ryce 77), Collins, Sammon (Adams 46), McEveley, Edgar, Hammond. Not used: Howard, Flynn, Woolford, Reed.
Wigan Athletic: Jaaskelainen, Perkins, Daniels, Power, McCann, Morsy, Grigg (Davies 77), Morgan, McAleny (Wabara 71), Pearce, Wildschut. Not used: Kellett, Nicholls, Chow, Colclough, Vuckic.
Referee: Stephen Martin (Staffordshire).