'Lads, what the **** are we doing?' The inside track on the brutal post-mortem that shot Sheffield United into the Premier League
When Sheffield United arrive at Aston Villa's stadium tomorrow for the first phase of the Premier League's 'project restart', Covid-19 safety guidelines dictate that they will get changed in a converted media suite rather than the away dressing room.
There was certainly little social distancing last time the Blades were at Villa Park. After last season's thriller in the second city, which saw United throw away a three-goal lead to concede an injury-time equaliser and draw 3-3, a post-match inquest amongst players in the changing room turned physical. Manager Chris Wilder sat back and let it happen.
Apologies were soon made and the bad feeling did not linger. In fact, United bounced back to keep seven clean sheets on the bounce after that game, winning six and drawing one of those games. Goalkeeper Dean Henderson believes the pain of Villa Park gave United the kick up the backside they needed to secure automatic promotion to the Premier League.
"It was the turning point of our season," said Henderson, who was beaten by Tyrone Mings at a corner for Villa's first goal and later pushed a shot into the path of Tammy Abraham for their second.
"I’m sure any of the boys would say the same… Aston Villa away made Sheffield United go to the Premier League. If the last 10 minutes didn’t happen and we breezed that 3-0, I think we’d have taken our foot off the gas. Whereas every game after that, everyone put 110 per cent in.
"We started keeping clean sheets and everything else looked after itself. For my part, I improved my concentration levels and tried not to get carried away. It levelled me out, definitely. I was starting to think it was too easy. I did the same the season before at Shrewsbury. It got to Christmas time and I thought it was too easy, and I wanted to go and play in the Championship because a load of Championship clubs were ringing my agent. So my head was getting swayed.
“I started doing stuff in games that I shouldn’t be doing, like side-volleying the ball instead of throwing it out to look good. Then, when you play more games, you realise that’s stupid and I think I matured on the pitch as the season went on. I took my foot off the gas at Villa and it was a good learning curve for me.
"Karma came for me and I got punished for it. I take full responsibility for that day. But I like to think that I came back from it."
Wilder called a meeting at Shirecliffe and made his players sit through the last 10 minutes of the game again, watching Villa complete an unlikely comeback after skipper Billy Sharp's hat-trick looked to have sent United top of the Championship table.
Lasting over an hour, the meeting saw more than one player given home truths by Wilder - Chris Basham later admitted he'd never been spoken to like that by the manager before - and Henderson puffed out his cheeks at the memory.
“I’ve never felt so bad," he remembered. "For days. Because I’m a confident boy, people look at me and say ‘ah he’ll be alright. He’ll be sound’. But deep down, I’m just the same as everyone else and sometimes, it does hurt. I didn’t want to come back in after the Villa game. Then the manager called a meeting and I’m thinking, ‘oh no’.
"We walked in and the goals were on the big screen and I’m thinking again, ‘oh no’. Honestly, I wanted the ground to swallow me up. With how I felt at that moment, I could have quit football. Retired on the spot. It’s maybe something only goalkeepers will understand, but those moments are horrible."
Skipper Sharp missed the scenes in the dressing room after the game, as he was out on the field collecting his man-of-the-match award.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Sharp said. “I’d scored a hat-trick at Villa Park, we all thought we’d won the game and we would have gone top of the league. The second goal was also my 100th for Sheffield United, and it was so nearly the perfect night.
"It all changed very quickly and we were devastated afterwards because we threw away two points and that could have hurt us. Really hurt us. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise - we could have gone top and got a bit complacent, a bit big time. Who knows? But it was a kick up the backside that we probably needed, and it stood us in good stead to be where we are today.
"I wanted to just win the game, go over and celebrate with the fans, top of the league… brilliant. Then bang, all of a sudden it was taken away from us. We went over to clap the fans and I had to do an interview on Sky straight after, although I really didn’t want to. I wanted to get back in the dressing room and start ranting. But as I walked down the tunnel, it was all quiet.
"I put the matchball and the man-of-the-match award on the floor outside the dressing room, because I didn’t want to go in with them, and then walked in. Everyone was silent and I started my rant. ‘Lads what the **** are we doing, we can’t….’ Then the gaffer just said ‘Bill, leave it - it’s been dealt with’. I was told afterwards that a few things went off. But that’s because all the players care.”