After spending the past three weeks searching for different ways to describe wholly preventable defeats, little wonder Chris Wilder’s footballing vocabulary had been exhausted following this enthralling game.
So, with Sheffield United’s manager choosing to abdicate his post-match media responsibilities, Alan Knill was handed the task of describing how a team supposedly intent on self-destruction secured its first victory since the 48-year-old’s appointment in May.
Courage, commitment and belief, he explained after Oxford succumbed to an uncompromising second-half performance, were absolutely key.
“The most important thing in our business, because there our always going to be disappointments, is how you react to them,” Knill, Wilder’s assistant, said. “At no point have we ever seen the players get down through what, yes, has been a difficult period. They’ve always been of the attitude: ‘Let’s get out there and have a go.’”
United appeared to be heading for a fourth defeat in five League One outings when Kane Hemmings fired the visitors into a deserved lead. Given the circumstances surrounding the fixture, the goal had a bizarre effect on the game.
By rights, Wilder’s players should have crumbled. Instead, with Oxford unable to chip away at their supposedly brittle confidence, United grew in stature as the afternoon wore on.
The momentum had swung so decisively in their favour when Billy Sharp equalised, another goal seemed almost inevitable. James Wilson provided it after escaping his marker at a Mark Duffy set-piece.
Earlier, the centre-half had come within a whisker of meeting Chris Hussey’s delivery while Matt Done had seen attempts blocked, saved and deflected away to safety before shooting straight at Simon Eastwood after bursting through.
“I’m delighted, relieved and pleased for everybody,” Knill said. “In the games so far, we probably should have got more points than we did.
“But the goal didn’t buckle us and the reaction from the players was fantastic. It was everything we wanted really.”
Wilder has spoken at length about the importance of character and Stefan Scougall has it in spades. The Scot, standing only 5ft 6in tall and weighing bang on the featherweight limit, was kicked from pillar to post throughout Saturday’s contest. But he kept picking himself off the canvas and coming back for more. It was a foul on Scougall which led to United’s second goal and, when he was eventually substituted during the closing stages, the former Livingston midfielder seemed moved to tears when the home crowd rose to acclaim his man-of-the-match display. Scougall was on the verge of leaving United after being loaned to Fleetwood Town by Wilder’s predecessor Nigel Adkins. Having made the most of his reprieve, this was Scougall back to his swashbuckling best.
Preparation is Key
Such has been the sheer scale of change at United in recent seasons, Wilder is the sixth person to take charge of the club since these two clubs last met during an FA Cup tie in November 2011. George Long is the only surviving member of the hosts’ squad that day and he could leave next week. So, with a congested fixture schedule limiting time on the training pitch, perhaps it was no surprise to see United produce the goods after enjoying a blank schedule in midweek. “It’s great winning but sometimes it papers over the cracks,” Knill said. “But this week has taught us a hell of a lot.”
With a foot injury preventing Leon Clarke from starting, Knill explained how some of the information gleaned had been put to good use against Michael Appleton’s side.
“We needed to stretch teams more and Matty (Done) is ideal at doing that,” Knill said. “You find things out over the course of a week and we found out he’s not a left winger, a right winger or someone who goes in behind. He’s up there at the top of the pitch.”
Tough Nuts to Crack
Wilder led Oxford back into the Football League during a six year spell at the Kassam Stadium and has a policy of never speaking to the press after wins or draws against former clubs. He must have been sorely tempted to change after watching United win their first game since April 2015 after falling behind. Repairing that soft underbelly has been one of the main priorities of the new regime, with nine players joining United in recent months. Two of those - ex-Oxford captain Jake Wright and goalkeeper Simon Moore - impressed here with the latter making a crucial save to deny John Lundstram before Sharp’s equaliser. Moore’s organisational skills, his voice could be heard above the crowd throughout the match, will be an asset. “Everything is so magnified here,” Knill said. “If you lose a game, everybody around you screams. But you just have to keep a level head, work hard and keep on doing the things you believe are going to get you to where you want to be. If you fight, you give yourself a chance.”