SHEFFIELD UNITED are back in control of their own destiny. So says manager Chris Wilder who remains confident his team, now three points off the play-offs after beating Leeds 2-1 at Bramall Lane, have a lot more to give over the remaining 15 matches of the Championship season.
“I spoke to the players yesterday [on the eve of Leeds’ visit] and I said I think it’s in our hands,” said Wilder after watching only the third win in the last 14 league attempts. “The answers lie here. The answers lie with us and if we are good enough and we outwork the opposition, outbattle the opposition, outplay the opposition then we give ourselves a fantastic opportunity of winning a few games of football between now and the end of the season.
“We feel that if we play well and everybody steps up to the plate then we can win. If we don’t then the season will fizzle out and I don’t want that to happen.”
He added: “I personally don’t think there has been much difference between our first 15 games’ performance and the last 15 games. The difference is both boxes. If we were a little bit better like we were in the first 15 games then maybe we would have had more points.
"I'm sick of banging on about how well we're playing and not getting results. People are looking at me as if I'm a bit of a nutter.”
Seven days can be a long time at the Lane. They began with wing-back George Baldock publically apologising for Sheffield United’s comprehensive defeat at Molineux. Ending with the Blades’ faltering promotion bid looking anything but after registering their first league win at home since Boxing Day coupled with favourable results elsewhere.
In between supporters learned from a club statement that Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has triggered a process to buy co-owner Kevin McCabe’s 50 per cent share of the club. All which goes to prove yet again that well used phrase there is never a dull moment at Bramall Lane.
As far as Baldock’s apology is concerned there really was no need. If anyone deserves one it is Wilder’s squad of largely journeymen recruited from the lower leagues but expected to perform to the highest Championship standards and bear the weight of responsibility if they don’t. The fact United remain in play-off contention despite an unnerving reverse in form stretching back to mid-November, speaks volumes.
“All I can say is sorry to the fans because they [Wolverhampton Wanderers] were better than us today,” Baldock admitted last week after the Blades were outclassed in front of a crowd of almost 30,000 and a worldwide TV audience.
Whatever the remainder of the season holds, history will record this group of players punched well above their weight. Wolves merely demonstrated the difference between a club intent on securing Premier League football and one which has adopted an approach of let’s give it a go. Chalk and cheese. None of the players are responsible for that. It comes from the very top.
It is becoming ever clearer the relationship between McCabe and the Saudi partner he introduced to the club four-and-a-half years ago is strained. Which offers an insight as to why they failed to sanction substantial investment into the team this season. Instead providing a piecemeal budget for Wilder to make do with.
Overcoming a disjointed Leeds, who slipped to 11th in the table and made a mockery of the club anthem ‘Marching on together’ under new boss Paul Heckingbottom who only eight days earlier had signed a new contract at Barnsley, was nevertheless more uncomfortable than it should have been. Something of a theme over the last three months.
“We got over the line,” said a relieved Wilder. Having lost at home to Aston Villa prior to defeat at Wolves, completing a league double over their West Yorkshire rivals was crucial to stop the rot and prevent further decline in the table. Had they lost or even drawn United would today sit tenth in the table, six points adrift.
“It was an even game between both boxes but I thought we were far more dangerous in their box or in and around the final third than they were for us. We were disappointed that we’ve not gone from one [goal up] to two to three. A second and third goal obviously changes the game completely.”
United led after just two minutes thanks to a brilliantly executed half-volley from Billy Sharp, his 200th career league goal and against his former club. The 32-year-old skipper had fallen out of favour of late and was making his first Championship start since December.
United, as has been the story so often since mid-November, failed to capitalise on their dominance. A second-half error by defender Jack O’Connell opened up the opportunity for Pierre-Michel Lasogga to level before Sharp secured three points from the penalty spot, his tenth league goal of the season and 11th in total.
Wilder was unimpressed by the lead up to Leeds’ equaliser. “You don’t have to work for that. Jack puts his foot through it and then I’ve got my left centre-half out of position out on the right wing.” He added: “From that he’s out of position and they get an overload from the back. To be fair to the lad it’s a great header and they’re back on level terms.”
But despite O’Connell’s mistake, his boss was full of praise for his overall performance. “I thought Jack was outstanding all afternoon. He won headers, he won tackles, he passed it, he defended really well and [then] he makes a decision. I think sometimes you’ve just got to look as well; these are fairly young lads and inexperienced lads so hopefully he’ll learn from that.”
Leeds boss Heckingbottom who replaced sacked Thomas Christiansen and was also on the losing side with Barnsley at the Lane in August, said: ”Sheffield United are, in my opinion, the best in the league at building momentum. They were keeping possession, playing forward and putting us under pressure.
"We played on the front foot in the second half and we had more energy. There was a bit of apprehension, I could sense it, and I thought that lifted in the second half."
Bizarrely, Lasogga was seen scouring the area in front of the deserted Bramall Lane end where Leeds supporters had been, in a vain search for a shin pad, one of a pair specially designed for the German which he ‘lost’ during the match. The 22-year-old forward later tweeted a successful appeal for its return. A fan replied saying she had been handed it by Blades groundstaff.
He wasn’t the only Leeds player to lose something dear. Kemar Roofe left the Lane minus a tooth, dislodged after an accidental collision with Chris Basham which forced a lengthy first-half delay. The winger continued but was quickly substituted after developing difficulty with his vision. Extraordinarily Roofe’s departure was greeted with total silence from the visiting fans.
There used to be a time when many thought the grass was greener at Elland Road. Not anymore.