FOOTBALL in a library. A chant to shatter the peace and quiet enjoyed by Fulham devotees at Craven Cottage. Another, less polite, told them what to do with their ‘clappers’ provided around three sides of the ground in an effort to boost atmosphere.
Studious supporters of the London club on the banks of the Thames ignored the provocation. Instead looking on with an air of disdainful superiority as their proteges moved a chapter closer to what is hoped will be a Premier League graduation ceremony in May.
Those naughty boys amassed at the back in the away end, all 1,510 of them, didn’t need lecturing on the finer points and theories of what was unfolding. For all the bravado they recognised Sheffield United were receiving a football lesson to focus the mind. But one which had far more significance off the pitch than on it.
Are you watching Prince Abdullah? That would have been a more appropriate cry on the night. For the truth is United put a shift in at Craven Cottage. No shame was attached. They were simply beaten by a much better side, one that is well equipped to win promotion. One that United scored four goals against at Bramall Lane earlier in the season and still lost by the odd goal.
Fulham are traveling first class in the hope of reaching their destination; United are being forced to thumb a lift. Cost effective if you get to the party before it’s all over but unlikely and with many more obstacles along the way. What's more you will have nothing to wear when you arrive.
A power struggle recently revealed between co-owning Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who wants to buy out partner Kevin McCabe, explains why United, riding the crest of a wave after storming to promotion last season, chose economy rather than scale to tackle the Championship.
McCabe must rue the day he introduced the royal from Riyadh to Bramall Lane four-and-a-half years ago. The anonymous Poundland prince who bought a half share of the club for less than the price of a doughnut at Greggs, still fails to deliver what he promised back in September 2013. Now McCabe’s mistrust and fear of putting his legacy in the hands of someone entirely unsuited to the club’s DNA, exercises the mind and is effectively freezing team development fit for purpose.
Blades fans, meanwhile, are an absolute credit. On this occasion they chose to go the extra mile. Having provided deafening and good humoured vocal support throughout as their team was clearly outclassed, players and manager received a standing ovation on their way back to the dressing room to reflect.
For a brief spell hopes were raised in the Putney End that Fulham, who have now won 11 of their last 14 league fixtures and the last nine at home, may come unstuck. United began looking more like the side that took the Championship by surprise and twice topped the table. On the last occasion in mid-November Fulham were 17th and trailing the Blades tally by 19 points. A statistic which illustrates the problems coping with Championship the visitors have struggled with ever since.
It didn’t take the Londoners long, however, to settle. Their stride quickly established, the moment on-loan striker Alexsander Mitrovic gave Fulham a 31st-minute lead, the result was never in doubt. When the big-earning Serbian whose parent club Newcastle United paid £13million for him in 2015, added a second just before half time, his fifth strike seven matches since making the loan move, it was always going to be damage limitation.
Hence Blades boss Chris Wilder switched from his regular back three to a four at half time. For the final 30 minutes after Tom Cairney added a third, United engaged in keeping their shape, Chelsea-style against all-conquering Manchester City, as Fulham toyed with their opponents and attacked at will.
“I’ve got to say I feel for the players,” said Wilder. “In that position when you are three-nil down with half an hour to go with the likes of the players that they’ve [Fulham] got on the pitch that’s a tough gig.
“You have to take your medicine. We’d have loved to have passed it a little bit more and we would have loved to have got a little bit more of the ball,” added the manager who pointed to missed chances by Billy Sharp and Clayton Donaldson early on. Had either been converted it may have given his team a foothold.
“We were well beaten in the end. It is no disgrace getting beaten by a team bang in form, a team that has won every game at home since the start of November.”
Only one man in United’s ranks would have slipped seamlessly into Fulham's Serbian manager Slavisa Jokanovic’s side and improved it further. David Brooks came on for only his second 45 minutes since being struck down by glandular fever in early December and missing more recently due to back spasms.
The 20-year-old Wales international didn’t have his best performance in a Sheffield United shirt but what he did was largely a class apart. The sight of him 30 yards from goal, hands outstretched in a vain appeal for his more experienced teammates to create movement for a telling pass, told where his future lies. Had he been playing for the opposition and benefitting from their slick, expressive and clinical style of play he would have surely benefitted.
“Mitrovic is an outstanding player and thankfully we won't be coming up against him in the next 11 games,” observed Wilder. “He's going to the World Cup, Newcastle paid what for him? £15m? He should be playing in the Premier League.”
The point won’t be lost on Brooks, already rumoured to be heading to Tottenham in the summer, or the agent of United’s prized asset.
Wilder rejected an opportunity earlier this week to rebut his assertion after defeat at Hull that he was “kidding myself” in believing United were good enough to reach the play-offs. “Those players have maxed out,” he said.
A knee-jerk reaction that even if partly designed to act as a motivator, part message to his masters, was clearly preposterous given that his team remained just two points shy with 13 matches remaining. Now they’ve slipped to ninth but are still only three points behind sixth-placed Middlesbrough with a match in hand and 33 points to play for.
The season is far from over despite what their manager implies. A strategy, if that’s what it is, in danger of backfiring. The fear after this result, albeit against exceptional opponents, is his players might start to believe him.