Sheffield United: Defeat but no despair ... Bolton 1 Blades 0

Leon Clarke misses with a header
Leon Clarke misses with a header

With a combined total of eight FA Cup triumphs to these teams’ names, it is easy to understand why Chris Wilder felt this match did not have the feel of a League One game.

A goal definitely worthy of a much higher stage ensured Bolton Wanderers won Saturday’s meeting between two of English football’s fallen giants but Sheffield United, despite some obvious flaws, still had reason to feel aggrieved.

A chance for Leon Clarke

A chance for Leon Clarke

Wilder, who like Phil Parkinson was taking charge of his first competitive fixture in charge of a new club, cut a phlegmatic figure after Jay Spearing’s long-range volley condemned the visitors to defeat. Having preached the importance of delivering results rather than performances, United’s manager felt obliged to highlight the failings which had contributed towards their downfall. Yet, although he conceded his team’s attention to detail had at times left much to be desired, Wilder also acknowledged the final scoreline did not tell the whole story of a game the Blades dominated for long periods.

Spearing’s effort - which George Long was powerless to stop - came after Leon Clarke, one of six debutants in United’s starting 11, had twice come within a whisker of handing them a first-half lead. The former Liverpool midfielder took full advantage of those reprieves when he converted from 20 yards out. If the finish was unexpected, the chain of events leading up to it were anything but given Bolton’s industrial approach. Lawrie Wilson’s long throw was cleared only for Spearing, unmarked just outside the area, to pounce.

It was a rare defensive lapse by United who otherwise defended doggedly throughout. Bolton were also solid at the back with David Wheater producing a superb tackle to deny Chris Basham as he primed to shoot and Mark Howard, previously of United, tipping a Matt Done header over the crossbar during the second half.

United’s momentum waned after the break as anxiety began to creep into their play. Earlier, though, Clarke and Billy Sharp had gone agonisingly close to getting touches on crosses from Mark Duffy and Chris Hussey respectively before Long parried Darren Pratley’s header to safety. With Bolton’s captain succumbing to injury after Parkinson had made his third substitution, the hosts again found themselves under the cosh during the closing stages but kept United at arms’ length.

Skipper Billy Sharp threatens

Skipper Billy Sharp threatens

PRE-MATCH PREDICTION

Having overhauled United’s squad since being appointed earlier this summer, Wilder had warned beforehand it might take time for them to click. On the evidence of this match, against opponents playing their first third-tier match for 23 years, his suspicions appear to be correct. But there was also no shortage of signs that, once clear lines of communication are established and players understand the nuances of their colleagues’ games, a successful season lies ahead. United could, indeed should, have wrapped up all three points midway through the opening period. Twice, with Chris Basham and John Fleck impressing in midfield, they made inroads deep into Bolton territory only for low centres to narrowly evade Clarke and Sharp. Professional sport is all about inches and marginal gains. In a few weeks, once their partnership develops, United’s centre-forwards will instinctively put themselves in the right place at the right time. Nevertheless, Clarke will have been disappointed not to have scored when he headed wide at the far post after eight minutes.

LONG V HOWARD

With Howard named between the posts for Bolton, it was inevitable that Long’s performance would come under intense scrutiny here. The Steelphalt Academy graduate, whose development last season hastened his opposite number’s departure from Bramall Lane, remains a work in progress but could not be blamed for Spearing’s effort and excelled himself when Pratley met Dean Moxey’s Howitzer of a throw. Howard was playing his first competitive game since October and enjoyed excellent protection from Mark Beevers and Lewis Buxton. But, while United’s failure to translate possession into shots meant he enjoyed a relatively untroubled afternoon, Howard showed no rustiness when Done attempted to convert from close range after the break.

Blades fans out in force at Bolton

Blades fans out in force at Bolton

DEFENCES ON TOP

There was no shortage of attacking talent on display. But, for the most part, this was a fixture where those at the back dominated. Jack O’Connell and James Wilson coped well with the physical threat posed by Gary Madine and then Jamie Proctor following the latter’s introduction. In front of them, Chris Basham and John Fleck impressed while John Brayford also caught the eye with a series of trademark runs. At the other end, Moxey, Buxton and Beevers came out on top in their duel with Sharp and Clarke. Both Wilder and Parkinson will be pleased with this aspect.

WILDER LEAVES HIS MARK

United lost but the way they went about their business was a huge improvement on the lacklustre shifts which cost them a top-six berth and Nigel Adkins his job last term. Wilder called for more tenacity after succeeding his predecessor in May and United’s players obliged by running hard and tackling, as Pratley can testify after Clarke’s challenge, even harder.

{http://www.thestar.co.uk/sport/football/sheffield-united/bolton-1-sheffield-united-0-player-ratings-from-blades-opening-day-defeat-in-lancashire-1-8055079 |For Danny Hall’s player ratings click here|CLICK HERE}