The art of noise and winning Premier League football matches: The story of Sheffield United's visit to Newcastle
It started with a hum, a hum which immediately became a rumble when the players stepped into the arena.
This was St James’ Park, one of England’s greatest sporting theatres, where Sheffield United were preparing to face their namesakes from Newcastle. And this was football. Proper football with fans. Not the soulless, sterile experience the beautiful game had become when it was forced behind closed doors at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately for the visitors, as their results since September have shown, passion isn’t what decides Premier League matches. It is quality, guile and the spite to punish mistakes - all of which Joe Willock showcased when he scored the only goal of the contest on the cusp of half-time.
“That’s been the story of the season,” United’s caretaker Paul Heckingbottom said, who handed Femi Seriki his debut during the closing stages. “We have a chance of our own, don’t take them, and get punished. From that moment on, chasing games at this level, it’s always difficult.”
A BIG GRIN AND EVEN BIGGER EARLY CHANCE
Anyone in any doubt about what supporters bring to football should have watched Aaron Ramsdale just before kick-off. Clutching his glove bag and gazing skywards as he shuffled slowly towards the Gallowgate end, United’s goalkeeper broke out into fits of laughter when he was roundly booed. Because after more than a year of silence, save for December’s fixture at Brighton, it felt mighty good to hear some noise.
To begin with, when the last few bars of the Blaydon Races were still echoing through the evening Tyneside air, United looked delighted to be back on familiar turf.
David McGoldrick, again tasked with mentoring the teenage Daniel Jebbison in attack, should have fired them in front after only seven minutes. But, after Jebbison and Ben Osborn burst forward before finding Enda Stevens lurking in space, United’s leading goalscorer misjudged his angles after controlling the Republic of Ireland international’s perfectly weighted pass. Martin Dubravka was beaten, and there was a collective sigh of relief on the Newcastle bench when McGoldrick’s shot flew just wide.
AND THEN ANOTHER
With Osborn’s energy causing problems and John Fleck now back to his usual chippy self, another opportunity for United to take the lead quickly presented itself. Jayden Bogle, the one change Heckingbottom had made to the team which had beaten Everton three days earlier, burst forward down the flank and produced a tantalising low cross which simply begged to be turned home. The only trouble was, it wasn’t. And, clearly relieved to be let off the hook, Newcastle duly moved through the gears.
“I thought we were in control to begin with and then they start coming on stronger,” Heckingbottom said. “We were strong, determined and on the front foot. It was our doing, if I’m being critical, on us and our team.”
BRUCE’S HYPNOTIC PARTY TRICK
Steve Bruce had spent the opening period of the contest performing a demeted dance routine on the touchline as United attempted to exploit their foothold. There was something quite hypnotic about watching his face change colour as the half unfolded - from pink to puce to red and then back again - when Newcastle began to grow in stature.
Taking big moments has been a big problem for United this term, and their failure to make the most of two more came back to haunt them when Willock headed past Ramsdale just as referee Robert Jones raised his whistle to signal the interval. Signed on loan from Arsenal during the January transfer window, the 21-year-old scored for the sixth match in succession after being left unmarked inside the box. It was a costly lapse in concentration, particularly after Ramsdale had earlier performed heroics to deny Jonjo Shelvey. He let his team mates know it and you couldn’t blame him either. Switching off for a second had undone more than three-quarters-of-an-hours of creditable work.
RAMSDALE STRIKES BACK
Jebbison’s contribution to United’s win at Goodison Park - becoming the youngest player in the competition’s history to score on his full PL debut - had seen him dominate the Bramall Lane news agenda before this trip to the North-East. Jebbison, still two months shy of his 18th birthday, worked hard again here but for little reward. Now it was Ramsdale’s turn to create the headlines, as he added two more superb blocks to his growing collection of breathtaking saves. The first, which came midway through the first half as Newcastle began to discover their rhythm, was all about reactions and agility as he contorted his body into a ridiculous shape in order to claw away Shelvey’s attempt. The second, unaware Willock had strayed into an offside position, was all about positioning and patience; advancing just far enough into his area to reduce the midfielder’s options and then refusing to be drawn into revealing his hand before smothering the resulting shot. It was a trick he reprised soon after the restart to deny Allan Saint-Maximin, whose power, pace and purpose made him a threat throughout, at the near post.
THE RIGHT MOVE
With United’s relegation back to the Championship being mathematically confirmed last month, Heckingbottom has tried to make the most of the situation by blooding some of the club’s most promising youngsters. With Iliman Ndiaye still missing in action as his contract talks plod on, it was the turn of Femi Seriki, previously of Bury, and former Manchester City defender Harry Boyes, to join Zak Brunt and Kyron Gordon on the bench. Unlike Seriki, Boyes didn’t get on but will be more knowledgeable for the experience.
“Femi is direct, he’s been involved in a lot of chances for us at youth level,” Heckingbottom said. “He’s direct and it was worth a throw of the dice to get him on.”