WATER finds its own level. At times it might be an inconvenient truth but an unavoidable law of physics all the same. So it should come as no real surprise that Sheffield United have succumbed at more or less the same stage as they did last season.
“We’ve been in good nick but it’s not been a good day for us and I won’t hide behind the result,” said furious manager Chris Wilder after a desperately poor display in a 2-2 draw at Rotherham which he acknowledged was wholly undeserved.
Hiding behind performances whether good or indifferent, however, is surely the root of the Blades current difficulties. The writing has been on the wall for some time.
United began October with two wins, extending their record to eight from the previous ten matches and a 1-0 home victory against Hull City left them sitting on the top of the Championship table with 25 points. That’s what most people would regard as being in good nick.
Since then United have taken only six out of a possible 18 points – one win, two defeats, three draws, and have dropped to fifth position. No matter what the manager says that doesn’t match the description.
The perceived wisdom presumably being there is little to fear; the team are on the right track, just look at the league table. Performances have been good, if not reflected by results.
Reality tells a different story. United have been unable to press home advantage and turn draws into wins or to hold out for a point instead of emerging empty-handed. And all the time rivals either gaining ground or catching up. Billy Sharp’s hat-trick in the 4-2 against visiting Wigan Athletic now seems such a long time ago.
Had United held on and won 2-1 at the New York Stadium instead of capitulating thanks to schoolboy defensive errors in added time, would that have been hailed as a below par display but a demonstration of character to come back after rampant Rotherham had equalised? Probably, especially as the Blades would have returned, temporarily, to the top of the table.
Indeed, fitting seamlessly into the narrative of recent weeks. The first-half display at Derby was totally dominant (lost 2-1). We “battered” – Wilder’s word – Stoke City at the Lane (drew 1-1). Should have seen out a tight match (late 1-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest). Only one team in it (goalless home draw against Sheffield Wednesday). So, after a fortnight’s break, should it really come as a surprise United twice squandered the lead at Rotherham.
Even more worrying was how with all due respect to the Millers who, as irony would have it, produced exactly the type of up-and-at-’em display Wilder so approves, how a vastly superior Blades side could have been overwhelmed, especially in the second half. “They were the better side in and out of possession, they won more first and second balls, they looked the hungrier, they competed better than us,” said Wilder, adding: “We got out of jail.” A damning verdict.
Through his own startling success turning water into wine is what is expected of Wilder, certainly by the club’s unhelpful co-owners fighting in the cellar. But that is beyond even the Messiah-like status he is held in by adoring United fans. No slight intended on players who have collectively over-achieved during his reign, but when the good times roll Peroni has to suffice. Given what is at his disposal to build a squad that is a miracle in itself.
He summoned all his strength to keep a lid on pent-up rage pitch-side at the New York Stadium. A result whilst gratefully received, he acknowledged was wholly undeserved. It led to his squad’s day off being cancelled as the players were ordered to Shirecliffe for a Sunday post mortem.
“We didn’t deserve anything out of the game,” said Wilder who pointed to goalkeeper Dean Henderson as the only player who could hold his head high. “I’m absolutely delighted we got a point from it because the performance wasn’t good enough.”
Reflecting on why his players failed to observe even the basics of his match plan, Wilder said: “They just thought maybe we could just stroll in here and it would be a pretty easy afternoon.” Henderson demonstrated his agility and reading of the game by producing a string of super saves. “The goalkeeper’s kept us in the game I thought he was absolutely outstanding,” said his manager. Rotherham manager Paul Warne was also an admirer of the Manchester United loanee.
Maybe Mark Duffy, skipper Sharp and striker partner David McGoldrick can feel unfairly slighted to be lumped in with the rest of their under-performing teammates.
Duffy’s goal to give United an eighth-minute first-half lead against the run of play, involved some sublime footwork and coolness of finish reminiscent of his famous strike at Hillsborough last season. He was also instrumental in most of United’s limited efforts to press forward. McGoldrick worked tirelessly and Sharp, who presented Chris Basham with a pinpoint cross to head home what looked like United’s winner with five minutes of normal time remaining, had little service.
United can’t even take consolation in the knowledge that they fulfilled the coaching maxim ‘if you can’t win it, don’t lose it’. The way the match was going that was more down to the clock than game management.
Wilder threatened to ring the changes for Tuesday’s trip to Brentford. “We’re in tomorrow morning [Sunday], the players understand I’m not happy about it regardless of the result and they should understand that more than anybody,” he said.
“It’s not good enough, they’ve set the standard, they’ve set the bar really high and there might be some changes. There were some players there that really put on poor performances and some maybe were quite fortunate to play today. But they might not be as fortunate on Tuesday night.”