WHATEVER happens between now and the end of the season, Saturday’s events at Bramall Lane will be remembered for a long time. Even as a possible landmark.
Not because it was Sheffield United’s fourth successive win. Or confirmation that after a stalled start to the League One campaign a serious promotion push now looks more likely than not. No. The reason why it stands out is because it brought a smile back to the faces of Blades fans. It also exposed a couple of weaknesses, one of them well known, another a little more unexpected.
Manager Chris Wilder sounded as if he had almost startled himself. “I reallly enjoyed the afternoon,” he said after United’s 1-0 win against Peterborough. He wasn’t alone. About 18,500 home fans in the 19,555 crowd did so too. Keep this up and those customary numbers will grow. It was noticeable leaving the ground how enthusiastic conversations were being had about the merits of the football just witnessed, not the customary grim-faced angst that Blades are used to.
For 25 minutes United finally delivered what Wilder had been promising since his arrival in May. Starting on the front foot; high energy and creating chances. It was infectious. United fans responded almost immediately. This was Bramall Lane of yesteryear. A sleeping giant of an atmosphere suddenly awoke, blinking in the sunlight and found its voice. It continued unabated until the final whistle. The Lane shook.
ViewFromTheJohnStreet.com wrote last week that the Blades were facing a proper football exam in their next two fixtures which would provide a good evaluation of recent progress. So far so good and a first clean sheet since April 23 in a goalless home draw with Barnsley. Indeed, their first win without conceding since victory at Chesterfield earlier the same month. Up next is a trip to league leaders Scunthorpe. Had they maintained the energy of that breath-taking start part one of the test would have been marked as an A plus. By half time it had slipped to an A and eventually finished as a B.
You know you are playing well and the crowd is right behind you when Daniel Lafferty wildly lashed the ball well wide of goal and Billy Sharp spooned a shot almost into the top tier of the Bramall Lane stand, both to rapturous applause. On another day there would have been groans of despair.
As encouraging and exceptionally entertaining as this performance was, the fact that goalkeeper Simon Moore received the man-of-the-match award tells you something. But for a series of saves, one of them outstanding by anyone’s standards, it could have been a very different story.
It was comforting, however, that Moore was not called into action because of glaring defensive errors. Jake Wright, Jack O’connell and Ethan Ebanks-Landell, who formed a first-half back three, looked a solid unit which, touch wood, suggests that Wilder has solved the rearguard problems that have haunted United for two seasons.
Wilder acknowledged just what a threat Peterborough posed. “It was a great afternoon for us. They are really dangerous opponents,” he said. “The way they played they will cause a lot of teams a lot of problems this year so we’re absolutely delighted to get this one out of the way.
“We tried to play when we had to play and we’ve defended well when we had to defend well and limited them to long range shots”
Peterborough stung by United’s early intensity forced their way back into the match not long after Matt Done had scored what turned out to be a well-worked winner and Wilder recognised the danger. Peterborough, replaced by the Blades in sixth place, enjoyed 54 per cent of possession and had ten shots on target to the Blades three.
“Their shape is a real difficult one to deal with and they did get a foothold in the game after about half an hour so we changed at half time and moved it around a little bit,” he said.
That meant the introduction of Stefan Scougall to central midfield at the expense of Lafferty who had been playing as a left wing-back in a five-man set up as United reverted to a more conventional four across the back. Scougall, despite his slight frame, used all his pace to make a difference
Lafferty was the only disappointment. It wasn’t a surprise that he didn’t come out after the break, although Wilder claimed it was down to injury even if that did sound contradictory. “We changed the shape because he was injured,” said the manager who may have been trying to protect his loan signing.
So what about those weaknesses? Chris Basham, it must be said, had one of his best performances in a Blades shirt, striking an imposing figure in central midfield, alongside the improving Paul Coutts. But neither is a substitute for the quality midfield general that is missing.
United can only hope that Basham, in particular, whose commitment is never in doubt but who can sometimes appear like a headless chicken, maintains his new-found composure. John Fleck, a 78th minute substitute, is a ball-playing midfield man but the 23-year-old is not of the commander-in-chief variety. A winger with pace, aka former Blade Jamal Campbell-Ryce but with an accurate delivery would make a big difference, too.
Then there is a continuing problem up front. On paper United’s strikeforce is formidable. It has been anything but in practise. United are averaging little over a goal per match. All United’s four wins this season have been by a margin of a single goal. Billy Sharp and Leon Clarke scored 39 between them last season. Summer signing Clarke, whose 18-goal haul came at Bury, is still nursing an injury and was missing on Saturday. When he and the Blades skipper have paired up they have looked like strangers.
Matt Done has proved with two goals in as many matches that he is far more effective playing down the middle, rather than out wide or, bizarrely, in defence for a time under former manager Nigel Adkins. His return to the position he was originally signed to fill, however, forces Sharp to play off him when the latter, the Blades leading scorer again, is at his most effective in the central role.
Then there is the addition of Caolan Lavery, who made too brief a debut against Posh to make judgement. If he lives up to his manager’s much publicised expectation – “Caolan is an outstanding signing for us. He gets in behind and has pace which is something we haven’t got” – is he a natural partner for Sharp? Or is it more likely that he will be better suited to the physical presence of Clarke?
Wilder, by his own assessment, is not trying to hide the problem. “For 20 minutes of the second half we were comfortable and we needed to go an extend our lead,” he said.
In the end United were just intent on protecting it as the power switched to Posh in a fascinating match which ebbed and flowed. As it drew to a close united were awarded a free kick ten yards from Peterborough’s 18-yard box in front of the Kop. The delivery was poor but it hardly mattered as Done was the only Blade in the area.
“When it’s 1-0 they chuck men forward. They take big chances and sometimes you’ve just got to see it out, said Wilder. “There’s no tactical way of seeing it out when they play so off the cuff and take so many big chances.”
Peterborough manager Grant McCann, rather ungraciously, was not as impressed with United’s start as everybody else was. “We started the game really, really poorly for the first 15 or 20 minutes and if you don’t start the game well against good teams you get punished,” he said.
“Too many of our shots were powderpuff. Long distance no real power about them. When [Gwion] Edwards [one of three 59th minute substitutes] got his chance I guarantee if that had been at the other end with Billy Sharp that’s a goal. It’s frustrating because we are dominating the ball.”
Wilder had opened his match programme notes with a reminder that whilst it wasn’t a good idea to become too low after his team’s disappointing start to the season, it wasn’t advisable, either, to get carried away by the turnaround of form.
He remains grounded after this latest win but even he must have pinched himself. “We’re a long way from where I want us to be but I think everybody is seeing what we are trying to do and most importantly the players are having a right go for the football club,” he said.
“I believe you have seen a Sheffield United side today that’s left everything out on the pitch. We look at the league table and it’s a lot rosier than it was three or four weeks ago.”
That’s all Blades fans want or can ask for.