Sheffield United 4, Fulham 5: Pride in defeat for Chris Wilder’s Blades after nine-goal thriller

Chris Wilder manager of Sheffield Utd signals for the fans to keep their chins up after defeat to Fulham. Pic Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Chris Wilder manager of Sheffield Utd signals for the fans to keep their chins up after defeat to Fulham. Pic Simon Bellis/Sportimage
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There were nine goals, countless chances and a curious mix of exceptional yet error-strewn football.

But, at the end of it all, Fulham secured the result which ended their barren run in Championship competition and prevented Sheffield United from overtaking leaders Wolves.

A Ryan Sessegnon hat-trick and Sheyi Ojo brace condemned Chris Wilder’s side to a rare home defeat despite Leon Clarke scoring for the sixth, seventh and then eighth time in his last three games. It was a contest which, as the United manager acknowledged, proved two important points: the division’s strength in depth and, given the determination and desire his players demonstrated, the fact they will never, no matter what the circumstances, throw in the towel.

“It’s pretty difficult to sum it up but if I have to state the obvious, you’re not going to give yourself a fantastic opportunity to win a game of football by conceding five goals at home,” Wilder, whose team slip to third, said.

“But I’m proud of the players and how they went for it. The last two goals were down to me and changing the formation, leaving ourselves wide open, but my players gave their all out there.”

United appeared to be dead and buried when Sessegnon, Fulham’s prodigiously talented teenager, celebrated his 50th appearance for the visitors by converting his third of an epic contest. But fortune very nearly favoured the brave as, throwing men forward, the hosts saw substitute Samir Carruthers and Clarke, again, pounce.

Sheffield United's Chris Basham (left) and Fulham's Denis Odoi take a tumble

Sheffield United's Chris Basham (left) and Fulham's Denis Odoi take a tumble

Fulham, last season’s play-off semi-finalists, were inventive and creative. United, playing for the first time since Paul Coutts sustained a serious leg injury, found them impossible to subdue. But, from a psychological perspective, produced enough to confirm they will remain a force without their midfield talisman.

“It was crazy,” Slaviša Jokanović, the Fulham manager, said. “Sheffield United showed great spirit to try and change the situation. They are a top team and have my respect.”

Until now, Wilder’s greatest challenge has been deflecting questions about his squad’s top-flight credentials after its flying start to the new campaign.

The source of Jokanović’s frustration, until the saga took a bizarre and seemingly conclusive twist, was the manner in which his employers chose to buy and sell players. The Serb, who following spells at Partizan Belgrade and Levski Sofia has experienced some of the game’s most highly-pressurised environments, cut an increasingly exasperated figure as Craig Kline, a lawyer turned sports analyst, wrestled control of the visitors’ recruitment policy. With Jokanović preferring to trust his eyes and instincts rather than the American’s statistical algorithms, matters came to a head at Fulham’s training ground earlier this month when Kline summoned the police after being relieved of his duties before going into meltdown on social media.

Leon Clarke scored another hat-trick but it proved to be in vain

Leon Clarke scored another hat-trick but it proved to be in vain

If a recruitment policy which denied Aaron Mooy and Glenn Murray moves to Craven Cottage had tested Jokanović’s patience, so too did the way Fulham began this game. However, Clarke’s sixth minute strike and 10th in as many appearances owed more to the incisiveness of United’s play than it did any failure on Fulham’s part. Jake Wright, who later made a brave clearance to thwart the dangerous Ojo, released Mark Duffy and when he in turn found John Fleck, David Button could only parry the Scot’s low drive. As the former Brentford goalkeeper scrambled to recover, Clarke became aware of the possibilities and stepped-up to prod home from close range.

It proved the catalyst for a crazy contest which saw the momentum swing one way, then the other before United staged their late fight-back.

With Coutts unlikely to return until next summer at the earliest, John Lundstram was preferred to Carruthers despite the latter’s greater experience. Although Carruthers started United first three league matches after helping the club win promotion last term, Wilder’s decision was designed to maintain the balance of United’s midfield given Lundstram’s defensive instincts. It proved to be the correct call as the 23-year-old impressed with some excellent tackles although, alongside him, Fleck was simply excellent.

Fulham, previously without a win since September, recalled former United midfielder Kevin McDonald and Ojo from suspension and injury respectively while Sessegnon reached his career landmark.

Ojo, drifting from one flank to the other, initially emerged as the greatest threat to a rearguard which Indeed, it was from the on-loan Liverpool forward that Jamal forward that Blackman produced an acrobatic one-haneded save soon after Clarke had broken the deadlock.

Despite Fulham’s obvious capabilities, United created the better openings during a first-half of high-quality action and a smattering of very costly mistakes.

Duffy danced his way into position as Wilder’s charges, combining flicks and tricks with plenty of tenacity, but was crowded-out at the vital moment while a surging run from Chris Basham nearly ended with Clarke being sent clean through.

So it was a surprise when, within the space of 120 seconds, the contest turned on its head. Ojo pounced on Carter-Vickers’ mis-timed back pass to drag Fulham level before, in the 30th minute, Sessegnon’s curling finish left Blackman grasping at thin air. But, eight minutes later, Clarke pounced again; threading an angled drive between Button and the far post as he approached the corner of the six yard box. The drama continued when Sessegnon restored Fulham’s advantage three minutes before the interval.

Ojo’s deflected effort in the 70th minute strengthened their grip on the fixture and, when Sessegnon struck again, United seemed dead and buried. But, three minutes from time, Carruthers scored his first goal in United colours before Clarke set-up the grandstand finish.

Sheffield United: Blackman, O’Connell, Wright (Hanson 74), Carter-Vickers (Brooks 59), Stevens, Basham, Lundstram, Fleck, Duffy (Carruthers 60), Sharp, Clarke. Not used: Moore, Donaldson, Stearman, Lafferty.

Fulham: Button, Fredericks, Odoi, Ream, Kalas, Cairney, McDonald (Johansen 83), Ayite (Kamara 68), Norwood, Ojo (Forte 74), Sessegnon. Not used: Bettinelli, Kebano, de la Torre, Edun.

Referee: James Linnington (Isle of Wight).

Attendance: 25,445.