Some big questions answered: What their win over Brighton and Hove Albion taught us about Sheffield United's personality

Midway through the second-half, after Neal Maupay had missed his umpteenth chance in front of goal and Brighton and Hove Albion began to tighten their grip on the game, a familiar story appeared to be unfolding at Bramall Lane.

Sunday, 25th April 2021, 12:58 pm
Updated Sunday, 25th April 2021, 4:21 pm

Midway through the second-half, after Neal Maupay had missed his umpteenth chance in front of goal and Brighton and Hove Albion began to tighten their grip on the game, a familiar story appeared to be unfolding at Bramall Lane.

Already relegated from the Premier League but leading courtesy of David McGoldrick’s first-half strike, Sheffield United were teetering on the brink of throwing away yet more top-flight points.

Their response, and the final result as the visitors threw everything at them during the closing stages in an attempt to eke something out of the game, answered many of the questions which had been posed about Paul Heckingbottom’s players earlier in the week. United might have been found wanting on the calibre front this term. But their personality, commitment and willingness to persevere, even in the most difficult of circumstances, remains as strong as it did when they finished ninth in the table last season.

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Ben Osborn of Sheffield Utd during the Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. Picture credit should read: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“We’re delighted,” Paul Heckingbottom admitted, reflecting upon his first win since being placed in caretaker charge a month-and-a-bit ago. “It’s been a tough time for everyone - the players, the staff and most importantly the fans - and so the fact they did what they did after knowing we’re down, that answered a lot of questions.

“We were asked were we going to try? Were we going to put it all in, even though our fate was already sealed? That’s why I’m delighted we produced a display like that, given everything that’s gone on and happened.”

MOST REVEALING

As Heckingbottom alluded, it was how United won rather than the fact they secured only their fifth victory of what has been a gruelling, debilitating and mentally draining campaign which was most revealing. Initially approaching their work with a freedom of expression one frequently sees from teams whose fate has already been sealed, it was towards the end of a contest which turned out to be far more entertaining than the television schedulers who awarded it the Saturday evening graveyard slot clearly imagined.

David McGoldrick of Sheffield Utd during the Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. Picture credit should read: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

Heckingbottom had called for a positive start and United obliged, with some clever touches and energetic movement. Rhian Brewster, who is finally threatening to become the footballer they thought they had signed seven months ago, is still yet to open his account since completing a £23m move from Liverpool. But the youngster bristled with energy during the early skirmishes, seeing a shot on the turn blocked by an Albion defender before McGoldrick’s effort.

But it was as the night wore on, and Graham Potter’s men grew in stature, when United really showed their mettle. Forced to dig in at times, Aaron Ramsdale produced fine saves to deny Adam Lalllana, substitute Jose Izquierdo and Maupay while John Fleck produced a lung-busting run to prevent the Frenchman, one a target of former manager Chris Wilder, from enjoying a clear shot on goal.

“The players have always been fighting,” Heckingbottom said. “There’s no hiding away from how tough it’s been. But it’s time now for everyone to look forward and try to take care of the future.

“The one thing this group has always had, no matter what else has been thrown at it, is fight.

David McGoldrick of Sheffield Utd and Paul Heckingbottom interim manager of Sheffield Utd enjoy the win during the Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. Picture credit should read: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“We’ve got five more matches left (this season) and we’re determined to enjoy every single one.”

A BIG COMPLIMENT

Significantly, as United’s board of directors continue the search for Wilder’s permanent successor, there was a cerebral edge to United work too. Potter, viewed as one of England’s most tactically astute coaches following his work with Swansea City and Ostersund in Sweden, briefly put aside his disappointment during the post-fixture Zoom conference to praise the strategy Heckingbottom and his assistant Jason Tindall had devised.

“I don’t think we were terrible,” Potter said, lamenting Albion’s habit of frustrating clubs above them in the rankings but struggling against the few below. “You have to credit the opponent.

“They pressed and they had a good game plan. We couldn’t find the spaces we required, or the positions, as much as we would have liked. Things might not have gone as they would have liked recently but Sheffield United have got good players and, let’s not forget, they beat Manchester United at Old Trafford not so long ago. That’s football, especially at this level. You can get beat and nothing comes easy.”

THE ARM WRESTLE

McGoldrick is one of the few United players who has achieved a degree of consistency since competition resumed in September, although Ben Osborn fast emerging as one of Heckingbottom’s ‘go-to’ men after being granted a run in the starting eleven by the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief.

Whereas Albion were wasteful, McGoldrick was clinical; netting his eighth of the season after Osborn’s cross was only half cleared and Enda Stevens had pounced on the ball before turning home midway through the opening period.

Jakob Moder, who later had an attempt ruled-out for offside following a VAR review, danced through the hosts’ rearguard but shot wide while Lallana fired straight at Ramsdale as Albion came bursting out of the blocks following the interval. Danny Welbeck’s flick, which carved a hole in United’s defence, deserved a better finish although Ramsdale’s handling was assured.

As United changed their shape to try and alter the dynamic of the contest, Yves Bissouma also miscalculated his angles and Maupay diverted the ball over the crossbar when Leandro Trossard’s centre fell just behind him.

But United created some openings too, with Jayden Bodle going close after Izquierdo, making his first outings for two years, drew another excellent block from Ramsdale.

“We showed a lot of different things, to a man out there,” Heckingbottom said. “I thought to a man, we were excellent.”