Beforehand, if Chris Wilder had been asked to identify the biggest threats to his Sheffield United team, he would almost certainly have cited Patrick Bamford, Britt Assombalonga or the other members of Middlesbrough’s £30 million strikeforce.
An assistant referee with a dubious grasp of the offside law is unlikely to have featured prominently on the agenda when the 49-year-old delivered his pre-match address.
But, after over an hour and a half of hard-fought action, Wilder laid the blame for this result squarely at the feet of Paul Hodskinson, whose decision to rule out Jack O’Connell’s last-gasp equaliser condemned the visitors to their first defeat in seven months.
Insisting that colleagues, coaching staff and television analysts alike were all baffled by the official’s interpretation of events, United’s manager branded the adjudication “ridiculous” and claimed, despite paying tribute to Middlesbrough’s performance, that it had denied his side a “deserved” point.
Chris Basham, initially suspected of straying into a prohibited position as players jostled to meet Mark Duffy’s free-kick, agreed.
“I can’t understand why it wasn’t given,” he said. “I’ve run over to the referee and asked. He told me it was ‘the number five’, which was Jack, but, really, I don’t see how it could be him. He’s hardly done anything at all. It doesn’t make any sense, but that’s why it’s such an intense game, I suppose. They will be buzzing because of it but we’re all gutted in there.”
Middlesbrough were leading courtesy of Rudy Gestede’s goal midway through the opening period when O’Connell appeared to have secured the draw which, despite appearing improbable at one stage, on balance United’s efforts probably deserved.
There were spells, particularly before the break, when Garry Monk’s men looked every inch the squad expected to dominate the Championship after being relegated last term. But, try as they might, Middlesbrough were unable to kill off United’s spirited resistance and were under growing pressure when O’Connell looked to have scored.
“It’s a tough place to come. They are the best team in the league and that’s why it really hurts so much,” Basham continued. “I thought we deserved that goal. Everyone was celebrating like wildfire because we thought we’d scored.”
Despite their sense of injustice, United can take encouragement from the fact they pushed Middlesbrough so hard. Monk’s players, and Bamford in particular, caused all manner of problems following Gestede’s intervention.
But the direction of travel changed after the interval, with Paul Coutts, arguably United’s most effective midfielder, forcing Darren Randolph into a fine save before the late drama.
“Danny Higgingbotham, Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink and everyone else on Sky, our video analyst and, more importantly, our supporters and players are confused,” Wilder, asked for his thoughts on O’Connell’s disallowed goal, said. “Apparently he started off in an offside position, then he moved back into an offside position and then impeded their centre-half from heading the ball.
“So let their centre-half just head it clear in the last minute when we are going for a result, after we have been unbeaten for about three years. You can’t get those decisions wrong, in my point of view.”
“I don’t want that to happen to us again,” Wilder added. “I want to make sure, first and foremost, that a linesman gets a decision right. We go to all these FA meetings, with the Football League and PGMOL. If you don’t, you get fined ten grand and there are new initiatives about key match decisions. There is definitely a report going in about a key match decision in the 93rd minute.”
Although United’s complaints were legitimate, they also come with several caveats. The free-kick which led to O’Connell’s ‘equaliser’ was soft - Basham appearing to trip over his own feet as he charged towards Middlesbrough’s box - and there were times when the Blades struggled to cope with the hosts’ movement and speed of thought.
Gestede’s goal, his first since March, also served to remind that mistakes at Championship level will be ruthlessly punished. Bamford’s cute chip caught United napping and, when they failed to clear, the Frenchman turned the ball home beyond Jamal Blackman.
“The centre-half should come and head it, “Wilder said. “We had another couple of bits and pieces, but as soon as the goal went in, their tails went up and they showed their quality. We had to hang on in the game and it was important we showed those qualities.”
Gestede went close again as Middlesbrough threatened to overwhelm United after taking the lead. But earlier, after Basham had set the tone with a crunching tackle on Adam Forshaw, the visitors spurned a glorious opportunity to seize control themselves and ensure the match official’s mistake did not carry so high a price.
An incisive move, involving Samir Carruthers and Kieron Freeman, presented Leon Clarke with a clear-cut chance to score. Rather than shoot on sight, the United attacker took a touch and assessed his angles. By the time those calculations were over, the opening had gone.
John Fleck also tested Middlesbrough’s defensive capabilities.
“The gaffer told us at half-time to go for it because we had nothing to lose,” Basham said.
“We probably showed them too much respect during the first half, but in the second I thought it was all us.”