If gold medals were awarded for shooting yourself in the foot, Sheffield United would be kings of Rio de Janeiro.
Instead, after yet another moment of defensive madness handed the opposition victory on a plate, they find themselves staring up at the rest of the table and without a win in four games.
On this occasion, Jack O’Connell was responsible for the mistake which left Chris Wilder sporting the expression of a man who had just won a holiday to Brazil’s most notorious favela and Millwall clutching three points when, given the way Saturday’s contest unfolded, one would surely have sufficed.
Only seconds remained when the centre-half inexplicably decided to handle rather than head Shane Ferguson’s cross. Referee Andy Woolmer awarded a penalty, Steve Morison gratefully converted and United’s manager winced after suffering yet another kick in the guts.
“I’ve said all along, we’ve not taken a ‘doing’ off anybody,” Wilder sighed.”But we are our own worst enemies at times. The goals we concede aren’t collective mistakes, they are individual ones. Millwall got to the play-off final last season, they’ve got Morison and (Lee) Gregory who are possibly the best two in the division and we were comfortable. But we can’t feel sorry four ourselves. It’s back to work on Monday and prepare for a massive game because we need that win.”
Wilder was referring to this weekend’s meeting with his former club Oxford at Bramall Lane. First, however, United must fathom why so many of their players seem stuck in self-destruct mode.
Despite falling behind in the sixth minute when Shaun Williams fired home following a David Worrall corner, the visitors recovered to enjoy the better of the first half. Stefan Scougall dragged them level with a shot which took a ricochet off Millwall captain Tony Craig and, although it was fortuitous, the equaliser was more than deserved.
Neil Harris’ team wrestled back the momentum after the break as Gregory was twice foiled by Simon Moore. The goalkeeper, making his debut after arriving from Cardiff City on Friday, impressed again to deny Morison during the closing stages. But O’Connell’s rush of blood, after he had done well to prevent the 32-year-old unleashing a shot from close range, undid all of that good work.
“If you get to 88 or 89 minutes, we really need to be defending properly,” Wilder said. “We came for three but it would have been a good point. It wasn’t a containment exercise. We didn’t play with three centre-halves. We were positive in everything we did so not to see it through was so disappointing. I’m not going to deny that it hurts.
“We know results at the moment aren’t good enough. But together we will put things right.”
BETWEEN THE EARS
Wilder described football as a “cruel, cruel” game following the final whistle. But he also acknowledged that, for the umpteenth time this season, United had been the architects of their own demise.
So how do Wilder and his coaching staff help them kick this noxious habit before it becomes terminal? There is, as this performance illustrated, no shortage of ability, bottle or character in United’s team. Despite once again looking a little shot-shy in attack, they effectively controlled long periods of the contest.
The players’ game-management is clearly an issue though. Or a lack of it to be precise. Enrolling them on a course about how to deal with pressure situations might be an idea. It certainly would not do any harm.
BIG CALL FROM THE BOSS
Despite arriving only 24 hours before kick-off, Moore looked the part during his first appearance for United. Replacing George Long between the posts - the Steelphalt Academy graduate was given the weekend off to “get his head right”, Wilder later explained - the £250,000 signing from Brentford was vocal, organised constantly and looked comfortable collecting high balls. Crucially, denying both Gregory and Morison as Millwall took charge towards the end of the match, Moore proved he is an accomplished shot-stopper too.
It was a big call from Wilder to remove Long from the firing line, especially given the possible implications for the youngster’s future at Bramall Lane. But Moore ensured United’s coaching staff did not end up with egg on their faces. Scougall and Kieron Freeman justified their recalls to the starting 11 too; the latter following John Brayford’s move to Burton Albion on loan.
“I think all the supporters behind the goal could hear him,” Wilder, assessing Moore’s contribution, said. “He instilled a confidence into the team.
“He was positive in everything that he did. He made some good catches and a really good save when they were on top for a spell as you would expect.
“Kieron did well and Scouggs made a difference as well, I thought.”
ANOTHER ISSUE TO ADDRESS
Speaking of big calls, Wilder could have another one to make at the opposite end of the pitch soon. Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp are both exceptional centre-forwards. Both would probably walk into most League One teams. But, so far at least, they have struggled to forge an effective partnership. This was another afternoon of ‘nearly but not quite’ for the two men. Clarke came within a whisker of connecting with Mark Duffy’s cross early on while Sharp again showed tremendous industry without ever really troubling Millwall’s defence. If the situation continues, the case for Marc McNulty to be given a chance will be compelling.