Sheffield United v Fulham: Blades thrash the champions to set-up Nottingham Forest play-off clash
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Sheffield United had just booked their place in the play-offs, as goals from Morgan-Gibbs-White, Iliman Ndiaye, Sander Berge and Enda Stevens propelled them to a ridiculously comfortable win over already promoted Fulham.
But after a nod of appreciation and merest hint of a fist pump, Heckingbottom’s mind immediately turned towards this weekend’s semi-final against Nottingham Forest. United want more. They want to join the club they had just eviscerated in the Premier League next term.
“I’m proud,” said Heckingbottom. “But if we don’t go up, who talks about coming fifth?"
A case of roles reversed
This was United doing to Fulham what Fulham have done to others in the Championship. Which, without getting bogged down in the lingua franca of coaching, was dishing out a damn good hiding.
Beautifully, bizarrely even given the pressure which was supposed to be weighing upon their shoulders, Heckingbottom’s men swept aside the visitors in emphatic fashion. Okay, so their preparations had revolved around drinking and paintballing after wrapping-up the title five days earlier. But United, all flicks, feints and Fred Astaire footwork, were simply phenomenal. Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose 46 goals have turned him into a footballing cheat-code, didn’t get a sniff.
“We started fine but when they scored,” Silva sighed, “Then they punished us.”
It all came down to this
After 273 days, nearly 70 hours of football and 20 victories, 14 of which had come since Heckingbottom’s appointment in November, it all boiled down to this. “It’s in our own hands,” the stadium announcer reminded the “biggest” and “best” crowd in the division beforehand. The only problem was, although no one dared mention it, those congregating in the away end had come to follow its finest team. Not that Fulham looked it, as they were filleted in front of more than 30,000 supporters. The DVD of United’s display won’t make pleasant viewing for Steve Cooper when it lands on his desk ahead of Saturday’s first leg.
“Two tough games,” Heckingbottom acknowledged. “We know them and they know us.”
Predictably, United betrayed signs of nerves during the opening exchanges. Passes went astray. John Egan sliced a clearance. But they fought like angry pit bulls before, after Chris Basham had launched himself into a tackle on Mitrovic, edging themselves into the contest and taking an early lead.
Gibbs-White’s effort, his 12th in United colours, was the most powerful antidote possible for their anxiety. Paulo Gazzaniga’s positioning might have been questionable, as the on-loan midfielder’s header beat him at the near post. But there were no doubts about the finish. Or, for that matter, the interchange between Ben Osborn and Oliver Norwood which created the opening.
Better was to come, with United doubling their advantage and then pouncing again before the half hour mark. First Ndiaye, whose superb piece of skill had settled December’s meeting between these two clubs, pounced for the fourth time in five outings after being teed-up by Gibbs-White. Then, as the volume inside the ground cranked up to 11, Berge found the back of the net following an assist from the Frenchman.
Before Fulham waved the white flag by withdrawing Mitrovic, United bagged another when Stevens converted from close range.
"We did it our way," said Heckingbottom. "Now it's on to the next one."