Although this might not have been, as Chris Wilder admitted, the most eye-catching result of Sheffield United’s season, it was the most revealing.
A goal and a man down against League One leaders Scunthorpe following Chris Basham’s controversial dismissal, the visitors dragged themselves off the canvas to claim a point and stretch their unbeaten run in the competition to five games.
Wilder, who performed a major overhaul of Bramall Lane’s first team squad after being appointed manager earlier this summer, expressed reservations about aspects of his side’s performance. But he could have no complaints about the character and camaraderie they displayed at Glanford Park as Billy Sharp’s late penalty ensured an enthralling contest finished all square.
“We want to play well and we’ve set a high bar for ourselves,” Wilder said. “We broke it up a lot, were a little sloppy with our passing and could have caused them a lot more problems than we did.
“One thing that we did give, though, was everything for that shirt. It won’t be the last time during the course of the season that we don’t quite reach the heights I want and know we are capable of. But, so long as that consistency of commitment is there, then that’s the main thing.”
Earlier in the week, Wilder had spoken about the qualities required to challenge for promotion with “bottle” and “guts” featuring at the top of his list. United, against opponents still unbeaten on home soil since the corresponding fixture last term, demonstrated plenty of both and, as the momentum ebbed and flowed, impressive match craft too. Basham applied the finishing touches to a delightful set-piece routine during the closing stages of the first-half after Kevin van Veen and Matt Done had both exchanged chances. Josh Morris, Scunthorpe’s leading goalscorer, equalised early in the second before Basham saw red for what Wilder insisted was a “50/50 challenge” on Neal Bishop. Duane Holmes appeared to have ended United’s hopes when he drilled a low shot past Simon Moore and into the bottom corner of the net. But Sharp had other ideas and converted from the spot following David Mirfin’s clumsy challenge on substitute Stefan Scougall.
“You can see the lads are prepared to do whatever it takes for each other,” Wilder said. “And, no matter what else, you can’t put a price on that.”
FOOTBALL HAS CHANGED
Ten years ago, the tackle which saw Basham receive his marching orders would not have produced a murmur from the crowd, let alone a red card. But, much to Wilder’s obvious displeasure, physical confrontation seems to be outlawed in the modern game. United’s midfielder, who now faces a lengthy suspension, looked aghast when referee Darren Deadman ordered him from the pitch. His manager was apoplectic. Not only, he revealed afterwards, with the official’s decision. “All I saw was two blokes going in on their backsides and going for the ball,” Wilder said. “Bash’s problem, though, was probably that he didn’t roll around on the floor afterwards. I must admit, I thought that (Bishop’s reaction) was disappointing.” United’s frustration was heightened by the fact that, moments earlier, Basham had been on the receiving end of an almost identical challenge by Murray Wallace which went unpunished by the officials. With Jake Wright and James Wilson both missing the trip to Lincolnshire through injury, Wilder faces the unwelcome prospect of being forced to reshuffle a backline which has looked increasingly solid in recent weeks,
A CLEVER SET-PIECE
Scunthorpe started the afternoon having not conceded a league goal in front of their own supporters since the opening day of the season. So it was always going to take something special to end that run. United obliged when Duffy, shaping as if he was going to sweep the ball high across the penalty area, instead prodded a short pass to Jack O’Connell who then followed suit by finding Basham.
With the hosts’ defence completely wrong-footed, he was left with the simple task of firing home from close-range. It was the first time Scunthorpe’s rearguard had been breached at Glanford Park in nearly six-and-a-half hours of league football. Wilder wants United to be streetfighters but they have plenty of guile too.
SIGN OF PROGRESS
This was exactly the type of game which, last season, United would have lost. But, by recruiting 13 new players since taking charge in May, Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill have not only changed the faces in the team but also its character too. Ebanks-Landell, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, is proving a particularly astute acquisition while more long-standing servants, including Sharp, Scougall and Paul Coutts, are benefiting from United’s more combative approach.
“Right at the end, there were people throwing themselves in front of things and prepared to put in blocks even though they knew they might get hurt,” Wilder said. “That tells you a lot about them and it’s the base that everything else is built upon. We didn’t get what we wanted in terms of outcome but we did in terms of how the boys were going about things. It’s good that the spirit has grown quickly but that’s down to the personalities.”