The story of Sheffield United's most important win of the season so far, as they keep their battle for Premier League survival alive
Chris Wilder spent the final few hours of the transfer window casting envious glances towards The Hawthorns, where Sam Allardyce was busy applying the finishing touches to a makeover of his West Bromwich Albion squad.
Less than 24 hours later, the Sheffield United manager was consumed with jubilation rather than jealousy after goals from Jayden Bogle and Billy Sharp delivered a huge victory in the battle for Premier League survival.
“There’s still a long way to go, I’m not getting carried away, there’s still a huge challenge in front of us,” Wilder said, recognising his side remain 10 points from safety with 16 matches remaining. “But we are alive, we are fighting and won’t give it up.”
Although he would never say so publicly, Wilder had prepared two post match speeches beforehand.
Rather than try and downplay the significance of tonight’s fixture, the 53-year-old had chosen to confront it head on; stopping short of describing it as a winner-takes-all contest but accepting the loser, particularly if it turned out to be United, would struggle to avoid relegation.
Wilder recognised that was a gamble. But it was one, after closely studying the form book, that he was willing to take.
It was a decision which tested his players’ character and they accepted the challenge, responding to the blow of falling behind when Matt Phillips fired the visitors in front with a bravery and boldness which paid-off in spectacular fashion when Bogle drew them level before Sharp confirmed he is still the best finisher at the club. United, who have now won five of their last seven outings in all competitions, remain bottom but are now only a point behind Sam Allardyce’s men.
“We were more ambitious in the second-half and we took care of the big moments,” Wilder noted. “We deserved the win.”
McBURNIE AND EGAN MASTERSTROKES
Allardyce has stalked Wilder throughout his career; selling him as a player after taking charge of Notts County before seizing control of West Brom earlier this term, less than a month after United had conspired to lose a game they should have been disappointed to even draw in the Black Country.
“I think one of the first things Sam did was get rid of me,” Wilder had joked on Monday morning, treating journalists to a potted history of his journey through the game. “I got sold at Bradford City too, when they let me come back to United. I think they got promoted so they knew something too.”
Although he was a far better full-back that he makes out, with a least one former team mate insisting only a lack of pace prevented him from becoming established at elite level, Wilder has developed into a far better coach than he ever was a defender - leading the club he supports from the third to the first tier of English football since taking charge in 2016. Wilder’s ploy of encouraging centre-half John Egan upfield after the interval proved a master-stroke, with the Irishman making a nuisance of himself before Sharp’s dramatic intervention. Likewise, bringing on Oli McBurnie, whose physical presence made such a difference.
It was telling, midway through the first period as United dominated possession, that Allardyce’s assistant Sammy Lee responded with enthusiastic applause from the edge of the technical area when West Brom, hauling everyone back barring Mbaye Diagne, suffocated one patient United move. It was confirmation the visitors were prepared to sit deep, frustrate and then wait for opportunities. Below them in the rankings, United did not enjoy that luxury. But until Bogle pounced, they found it difficult to identify a route through what was a ridiculously packed rearguard. The trouble was, by then, Phillips had already given West Brom the lead; ending his 11 month wait for a goal by converting from close range.
RIGHT IDEA, INITIALLY THE WRONG EXECUTION
Hired because of his reputation for staving off the threat of relegation, Allardyce has found reviving West Brom tougher than he probably dared to expect. Wilder has never gone down since entering the technical either and, against opponents who travelled north having won only one of their last nine outings, he made two changes to the starting eleven which had gone narrowly close to drawing with Manchester City three days earlier. By tasking Sharp and David McGoldrick with spearheading United’s attack, Wilder betrayed his suspicions that experience would prove a more valuable asset than pace given Allardyce’s preference for defending deep and in numbers.
That selection nearly paid off just before the quarter-of-an-hour mark when McGoldrick turned his marker and, aided by referee Paul Tierney’s decision to play the advantage following a tug on his shirt, tried to send the ball into the far corner of West Brom’s net. Sam Johnstone, however, had guessed his intention and was able to make a comfortable save.
THE DEFINING MOMENTS
Allardyce suggested it was all part of the game plan. But, from United’s perspective, Phillips’ goal was a desperately poor one to concede. Norwood, who was withdrawn at half-time, should have done more to prevent Snodgrass from edging West Brom forward while, after Ramsdale had thwarted Callum Robinson and then Ampadu denied Diagne, there was still ample opportunity to clear before Phillps, who briefly played for United on loan a decade ago, prodded home.
With George Baldock suffering a hamstring complaint moments later, the hosts’ already injury ravaged squad was quickly dealt another blow. But McBurnie’s introduction, coupled with Egan’s forays forward in open play, helped drag West Brom out of the positions they wanted to take up.
Bogle smashed home past Johnstone after Chris Basham had taken a throw towards Sharp and then swept a dangerous cross into the box. Then, after Ramsdale had produced a superb block to deny Robinson a goal against his former club, Sharp produced one of his trademark finishes. It was his 101st league goal for United and perhaps the most important.