There was a moment in this game, midway through the second half, which highlighted perfectly why Sheffield United’s remarkable year ended on a disappointing note.
Already trailing to Gary Madine’s eighth goal of the season, a finish so simple it could have passed as a belated Christmas present, defender Jack O’Connell charged upfield and swept a delightful cross into Bolton Wanderers’ penalty area only for Leon Clarke to mistime his jump.
It was the type of opening Chris Wilder’s side created on countless occasions without, until the predictable last-gasp onslaught, ever really threatening to take. The end result was a defeat their manager described as a “massive opportunity missed” and a first Championship away win for the visitors in 999 days.
“I don’t want us to consolidate,” Wilder said. “I want us to kick on. I don’t want us to be that side that’s being talked about in good ways, which I think we are, but has now taken four points from five home games.”
Madine, thanks to a four-year spell with Sheffield Wednesday and foolhardy comments about Billy Sharp on social media, is the bête noire of Bramall Lane. But, after being booed before kick-off, some excellent wing play and woeful defending combined to ensure he had the last laugh.
Antonee Robinson, the Wanderers full-back, had already caused United’s rearguard all-sorts of problems when he burst down the flank and produced the type of centre strikers dream about. Madine could not miss but, as Wilder later acknowledged, the fact he was left unmarked inside the six-yard box provoked questions afterwards.
“There wasn’t anything tactical about their goal,” Wilder said. “If there was, it would have happened four or five times. It happened once. We defended poorly, got involved in a scrappy game and then couldn’t find that bit of quality I thought would see us go on to win.”
Wilder, whose demeanour suggested United’s post-match inquiry had not been as cordial as he tried to suggest, admitted Madine had been the most effective player on the pitch when, over an hour and a half after the final whistle, he finally arrived to face the media.
True, the 27-year-old’s physicality and perseverance provided Wanderers with a platform in the game. But Karl Henry and Darren Pratley also dominated the midfield and prevented the hosts from translating possession into clear-cut opportunities.
When they did, particularly after George Baldock’s introduction following Madine’s effort, either the final ball was poor or profligacy criminal.
Ben Alnwick, the Wanderers goalkeeper, saved well from Clarke and the United substitute but otherwise enjoyed a relatively trouble-free afternoon.
“Gary was the best player on the pitch, even though he’s come in for criticism because of his connections,” Wilder said. “I’ve got to say, I thought he was outstanding. That’s what enabled them to get up the pitch.”
“We’ve haven’t had an inquest,” he added. “Do you think there should have been? I’ve just had a beer and something to eat because I was hungry and I wanted to congratulate the opposition assistant and goalkeeping coach because they’re great mates of mine. I apologise for keeping everyone waiting but we’ve just had a talk, that’s all.”
United had entered the contest hoping to break a new club record for the most points accumulated in a calendar year. However, despite their markedly different seasons, it quickly became apparent this fixture would not be as one-sided as the Championship rankings would suggest.
United, still sixth in the table after cruising to the League One title last term, established a territorial advantage but struggled to find a way past David Wheater and Mark Beevers. Wanderers, who remain mired in the relegation zone, have found the second tier a much tougher proposition since securing the second automatic promotion berth but stuck diligently to the game-plan Phil Parkinson had devised.
“Sheffield United are an excellent team, a fantastic team,” he said. “They like to get on the front foot and so it was important we stopped them from doing that.
“The atmosphere here is always brilliant. I know that from coming here many times in the past, and the crowd really urge their players forward. But I thought we exploited the space they left well when their centre-halves went forward on the overlap and then defended together, as a unit, really well.”
“They turned it into the type of game they wanted it to be,” Wilder countered. “Their manager said they knew how we’d play, in the same manner that has brought us this far and got us so many points and victories last year. I don’t want us to play any other way and I don’t think our fans would want us to either.
“But, equally, we knew how they’d play: whack the ball up to Madine, look to win the second and then take it from there.
Baldock forced a near-post save from Alnwick after Madine had broken the deadlock before Clarke, having been released by Duffy, was also denied by the goalkeeper. In between, John Lundstram, partnering John Fleck in midfield following the Scot’s return from suspension, completed an excellent block to deny Henry although Wanderers’ desire to chase a second goal seemed to dissipate from there.
O’Connell headed wide and Baldock again went close before Clarke hooked the ball into the crowd after edging too far in front of the substitute’s pass.
“When we have the majority of the play, we need to be more clinical,” Wilder said. “We didn’t produce that bit quality we’ll need to show if we want to move on.”