Stoke City v Sheffield United: Toothless Blades suffer promotion blow in tepid contest

Okay, so it was a Saturday afternoon in April rather than a winter’s Wednesday night. The weather, despite being changeable, was only cold, damp and rainy for part of the contest.

Saturday, 2nd April 2022, 5:50 pm

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But trips to Stoke City, surely one of the most exposed grounds in the country, are still the barometer by which a team’s character is judged. And with only five points separating third from seventh in the Championship table beforehand, personality is definitely going to play a part in deciding which clubs qualify for the play-offs and who misses-out.

Predictably, Sheffield United’s visit to the bet365 Stadium proved to be a grind. Ranked sixth at kick-off, after Nottingham Forest’s filleting of Blackpool in the lunchtime fixture, Paul Heckingbottom’s men slipped to eighth following the final whistle. With seven matches remaining, he will be disappointed with their position. But even more so with the performance. Billy Sharp and to a lesser extent Oli McBurnie, reportedly suffering from a thigh problem, were sorely missed.

“It was a disappointing result and the display wasn’t what we were after either,” after John Egan’s own goal, as he attempted to block a Josh Tymon cross, presented City with the win. “We weren’t at our best but if we’d have won 1-0, I’d be delighted with a battling victory.”

Unable to go up and definitely not going down, City were also strangely passive for a team with no pressure on their shoulders whatsoever. Like United, missing the injured Sharp and with new signing Filip Uremovic on the bench, they showed flashes of promise during a forgettable first half. But only flashes. And only briefly, with most of the hosts’ best openings coming as a result of United’s loose passing rather than any great invention on their part.

Josh Maja’s dangerous low cross towards D’Margio Wright-Phillips, expertly swept away by Ben Davies at the beginning of the second period, signalled City’s arrival in the game.

Badly missing Sharp’s presence in attack, United relied on Gibbs-White to test their opponents’ defensive solidity. The England under-21 international did that three times before the interval, with Ben Wilmot producing an excellent tackle to prevent him surging through early on before a shot from distance was deflected wide. Sandwiched in between was a delightful piece of skill, which saw Gibbs-White create just enough space to try and test Jack Bonham only to miscalculate his angles.

Rhys Norrington-Davies of Sheffield United under pressure from Ben Wilmot of Stoke City during the Sky Bet Championship match at the Bet365 Stadium: Cameron Smith/Getty Images

With McBurnie also ruled-out with a muscle problem, Daniel Jebbison was tasked with spearheading United’s attack. The teenager struggled to make an impression on the action, although he did come close to getting what would surely have been a decisive touch on a Rhys Norrington-Davies centre during the second period. George Baldock, another of the four changes Heckingbottom made to his starting eleven, saw an attempt blocked on the rebound.

“We couldn’t get a foothold,” Heckingbottom acknowledged, “Or be dominant.”

Just as the game appeared destined to end in stalemate, City broke the deadlock in fortuitous fashion.]

Substitute Tyrese Campbell slipped the ball inside Davies and towards Tymon. He swept a centre across the six yard box but Egan, stretching to cut it out, turned the ball past Wes Foderingham who was left wrong-footed.

Stoke City's manager Michael O'Neill is all smiles: Barrington Coombs/PA Wire.

“I felt one goal would settle it,” City manager Michael O’Neill said. “It did and I felt we deserved it.”

Stoke City: Bonham, Allen, Vrancic (Sawyers 64), Tymon, Thompson, Wilmot, Brown, Jagielka, Harwood-Bellis, Wright-Phillips (Campbell 70), Maja (Fletcher 87). Not used: Bursik, Chester, Clucas, Forrester.

Sheffield United: Foderingham, Baldock, Norrington-Davies, B Davies, Egan, Robinson, Norwood (Ndiaye 69), Fleck, Berge, Gibbs-White (Osborn 79), Jebbison (Osula 79). Not used: A Davies, Stevens, Hourihane, Uremovic.

Referee: David Webb (Lancashire).

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom cut a disappointed figure: Barrington Coombs/PA Wire