Big-match verdict: Controversy at the Riverside as Boro end Blades unbeaten run

Match-winner: Middlesbrough scorer Rudy Gestede, left, and Sheffield United's Jack O'Connell battle for the ball.
Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA
Match-winner: Middlesbrough scorer Rudy Gestede, left, and Sheffield United's Jack O'Connell battle for the ball. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA
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IT was the Glorious Twelfth, the start of the shooting season, after all.

Match-day officials, as opposed to grouse, were metaphorically in the sights of Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder, with referee Peter Bankes and linesman Paul Hodskinson in the line of fire.

Dressed in his usual Blades attire as opposed to tweed breeks, Wilder took aim after Jack O’Connell’s stoppage-time ‘leveller’ was controversially ruled out – and it was easy to understand his fury.

Debate raged long into the night on social media as to whether the call from Hodskinson was correct, with video replays showing that he clearly uttered the word ‘five’ – O’Connell’s number – to indicate a perceived offence after the defender bundled in Mark Duffy’s teasing free-kick.

A fair amount of subjectivity, pretty dependent on whether your status was a Teessider or South Yorkshireman, saw opinion at polar opposites of the spectrum. But it was perhaps the reaction of home defender Dael Fry that was the most telling.

Assigned with marking O’Connell, the young centre-half’s hands-on-head expression straight after the ‘goal’ was one of deep-seated angst at being out-muscled by an opponent.

There was no instantaneous gripe towards the referee to signify a foul and no appeal that O’Connell had strayed offside.

With some justification, Boro fans would point out the fact that the free-kick award was a soft one in the first place after O’Connell went down theatrically following Cyrus Christie’s challenge.

This said, there was little wrong, to the naked eye, with O’Connell’s ‘goal’, with the consternation of everyone connected with the Blades obvious and understandable.

Tensions quickly rose in the stands in the area separating home and away supporters and, sadly, the mood also turned ugly outside the ground after the game when rival fans clashed.

Unbeaten since January 24, the Blades were entitled to be sore at seeing their prized 19-match run end in gut-wrenching fashion.

But given their excruciating experiences in 2017, the hosts were understandably happy to take anything they could get – it was just Boro’s second home league win since December 17.

Summing up the disappointment in the Blades’ camp, Chris Basham, whose weak clearing header had enabled Rudy Gestede to nod Boro in front with the only goal of the game, said: “It is a tough place to come, they are the best team in the league and that is why it really hurts so much. I thought we deserved that goal. Everyone was celebrating like wildfire.

“I cannot understand why it was not given. I have run over to the referee and asked why. He told me it was ‘the number five’, which was Jack, but, really, I don’t see how it could be him. He has hardly done anything at all.

“The lads are just gutted, absolutely gutted, about having that snatched away. Losing games isn’t something we are used to. It has been a long time since it happen to us and now we have just got to put it behind us and build another run. That is something we have all spoken about.”

Offering a home perspective, loan debutant Lewis Baker, who came on in the second half, said: “It was a disallowed ‘goal’, we all thought it was and I saw the linesman’s flag. If you saw me, I tried to get a counter-attack going while they were celebrating.

“Sheffield put the pressure on in the last 10, but we did well and stayed in the game to get the three points.”

Ahead of the game, Wilder spoke about a lot of things having to go his side’s way if they were to get a positive result on Teesside and, by the final whistle, his words proved prophetic.

Seeking a club-record ninth successive league victory against hosts whose line-up pointed to some disruption, with £9m summer signing Martin Braithwaite missing alongside Daniel Ayala, United showed initial promise, with Leon Clarke dallying when wellplaced, Adam Clayton getting in a key block.

But, as the old saying goes, goals change games with Boro kick-starting Garry Monk’s era with a relieving opener on 20 minutes, in a cathartic moment for Patrick Bamford and Gestede.

Signed in January with Boro descending into a grim relegation fight, the pair resembled lost souls with clouded minds and heavy legs in the final months of last term.

Showing proficiency in the No 10 role, Bamford’s perceptive lob struck panic in the Blades’ ranks, with ex-Boro loanee Jamal Blackman in no-man’s land following Basham’s poor clearing header, with Gestede showing alertness to head the ball over the visiting goalkeeper.

Boro dominated the rest of the half and showed fluidity in the attacking third with a post denying Gestede a second after he rose well following a fine cross from the impressive Christie.

The interval arrived at a useful juncture for the visitors and an untimely one for the hosts and the second half proved rather more scrappy, with Boro showing that they have lost none of the dogged, organisational traits which served them so well at second-tier level under Monk’s predecessor, Aitor Karanka.

The Blades showed willingness, but struggled for genuine incision, with their best moment seeing Darren Randolph keep out Paul Coutts’s effort from distance.

The goalkeeper also denied Clarke from an acute angle before finally being beaten – and then came the conjecture.