Three hundred and fifty one days, 14 wins, 12 draws, 12 defeats and one global pandemic since taking their first not so tentative step back into the Premier League, Sheffield United signed-off what has been a memorable season for all sorts of different reasons. But mostly, Chris Wilder reflected following this visit to Southampton, because of the achievements of his players and the progress they have made.
“This is probably the strongest division in Europe and possibly the strongest division in the world,” he said, after United finished ninth in the table despite this 3-1 defeat at St Mary’s Stadium. “And we’ve come where we’ve come, facing clubs who are absolute giants. The lads have represented our club absolutely brilliantly.”
Although the outcome of the match at St Mary’s will be a source of frustration - Che Adams scoring twice against his former club and Danny Ings netting once after John Lundstram had earlier broken the deadlock - United will look back upon their work over the past 11 months with an immense amount of pride.
Nearly a year ago, a little over 30 miles to the west, Wilder’s men were being told that relegation beckoned when they prepared to begin the new top-flight campaign against AFC Bournemouth. Eddie Howe’s men have gone down but Wilder’s charges have flown. Despite being told they were too unsophisticated, too naive and simply too inexperienced, after 12 long years away, to survive let alone prosper in such exclusive company.
“The players have given me everything, absolutely everything, but of course we also need to move forward,” Wilder commented. “We’ve got to move forward because that’s what everyone else will be doing. And I’ll be doing my absolute utmost to make sure that happens. I’ll be doing everything I can to make sure we keep heading in the right direction and getting better at everything we do.”
With the transfer window swinging back open in less than 24 hours time, United had travelled south with one eye on Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side and the other on their recruitment plans.
The opening exchanges of this contest revealed where Wilder will look to improve before competition resumes in September and also why - having named a short-handed bench following injuries to Jack O’Connell and David McGoldrick, United found themselves chasing the ball for the first 15 minutes but still created the best early opening.
Unfortunately it was spurned, with Billy Sharp prodding the ball straight at Alex McCarthy after being released by Lundstram. The United captain - a former Southampton player - appeared to be caught in two minds as Oli McBurnie charged forward in hot pursuit, screaming for a pass and making Sharp aware of his presence. Wilder, who concedes his squad must become more clinical and calculating in order to build upon their progress of the past 11 months, shrugged his shoulders and turned away.
But his dismay turned to delight midway through the first-half when Lundstram powered home from close range. Receiving possession from John Fleck, Enda Stevens’ cross slipped through Jannick Vestergaard’s legs after being shielded by Sharp and reached the midfielder - who converted from close range.
Lundstram thought he had extended United’s advantage soon after but his thumping effort was saved by McCarthy.
“The game is always decided in both boxes and that’s what happened here,” Wilder said, tracing how the contest eventually slipped from United’s grasp. “They were clinical in our area. We weren’t clinical in their area. But there were some tired minds and bodies out there.”
“I thought we produced a very grown-up performance,” Hasenhuttl reflected. “We showed lots of good attributes against very good opponents. So it is nice to go away now on that note.”
Lundstram’s impact on the first-half - impressing both in and out of possession before claiming his fifth of the campaign - underlined the midfielder’s importance to a United side who showed great discipline in the face of Southampton’s constant probing. But with contract negotiations between him and the club seemingly making little progress, doubts must remain over Lundstram’s long-term future at Bramall Lane.
Wilder, who would prefer the player and his agent to accept United’s offer and allow everyone to move on, also faces an anxious wait before discovering if Dean Henderson will return next term.
The goalkeeper, on loan from Manchester United, has been superb since first arriving in South Yorkshire two summers ago. If this was his last appearance in a United jersey, it actually turned out to be a pretty disappointing one - Henderson looking crestfallen when Adams’ shot flew past him at the near post early in the second period. For all their slick exchanges and movement, Southampton’s equaliser was created in pretty scrappy circumstances; the ball falling kindly for the former United youngster following a challenge by Sander Berge.
Adams has matured beyond all recognition since leaving United soon after Wilder’s appointment in 2016, when he was sold to Birmingham City as part of the fund-raising exercise which helped construct the squad which later delivered the League One title.
He showcased his instincts once again with a little over a quarter-of-an-hour remaining - sweeping the ball beyond Henderson, who was powerless to intervene, after Kyle Walker-Peters’ shot had cannoned into a defender. Ings added the third from the spot after being clipped by John Egan as substitute Oliver Norwood attempted to shepherd him across the area.
“I actually think that was a game we should have won in the first half,” Wilder said. “We should have been out of sight at the break.”