WITH two lifelong fans at the helm of these clubs and the Championship’s top two marksmen going head-to-head in the quest for the Golden Boot, Sheffield United’s trip to Aston Villa last night was not short of potential plotlines.
Few, though, could have predicted the drama that would unfold as Sheffield United saw what had seemed to be an iron grip on pole position in the Championship snatched away in quite remarkable fashion.
Three goals to the good with just eight minutes remaining thanks to Billy Sharp’s second hat-trick of the season the Blades found to their cost why Villa Park has become the place to be for thrills and spills this season.
Tyrone Mings began the fightback by heading in a corner for Dean Smith’s men. Tammy Abraham, who had started the night level on 19 goals with Sharp at the top of the Championship scoring charts, then added a second soon after to set up a grandstand finish that substitute Andre Green capped deep into stoppage-time by beating Dean Henderson from close range.
Even at a ground that has witnessed a 5-5 draw this season, along with a festive fightback from Leeds United that saw a two- goal half-time deficit turned into victory for Marcelo Bielsa’s men by a last-gasp strike from Kemar Roofe, this took some believing.
Certainly the Blades players looked shell-shocked when leaving the field at full-time. With good reason, too, as there had simply been no inkling of such a dramatic finale during a game that had been dominated by the visitors until that late collapse.
Billy Sharp, the striker whose name appearing on the scoresheet guarantees United will not lose, had taken his tally of goals for the Yorkshire club to 101.
But, in truth, the Blades’ dominance before that dramatic late fightback had been down to a commanding team display.
Chris Wilder’s side were superior in every department up until Villa were given a lifeline by Mings. Such had been their dominance, in fact, that many of the locals in the 34,892 crowd had left for home long before the Bournemouth loanee had opened his account in claret and blue.
Sharp had given the visitors a dream start on 11 minutes with a typically predatory strike. Oliver Norwood’s corner was headed back towards a scrum of yellow and claret shirts inside the six-yard box by Gary Madine.
United’s captain, as he has been for most of the season, was a yard ahead of the opposition to leave John McGinn with no chance of denying him a shot at goal.
Abraham tried his best, but the ball had crossed the line before he got a touch and the visitors had the lead.
Sharp’s second of the night – and 100th in Blades colours – was a much more controversial affair.
Not only did he appear to be offside ahead of bundling the ball over the line after Madine’s header had looped against the post, but Villa had a legitimate call for a foul by Chris Basham at the other end on Jonathan Kodija just 20 or so seconds earlier.
Had referee Tony Harrington blown then a booking would have surely followed. Basham was already on a yellow card after clattering Joe McGinn during the first half meaning United could have been a man down rather than two goals up.
Villa’s night went from bad to worse just after the hour when Sharp nodded in his hat-trick goal from a Kieran Dowell cross that had taken a deflection off Mings.
That appeared to be that, as the 2,500 travelling fans hailed their attacking talisman with the affectionate chant, ‘He’s just a fat lad from Sheffield’.
It was a party atmosphere in the away seats, but Villa Park’s predilection for drama should have warned the visitors from the Steel City not to start celebrating too early.
Not only did Villa share ten goals with Nottingham Forest in late November, but they also drew 3-3 with Preston North End after missing a late penalty. Then there was Leeds’s 3-2 victory two days before Christmas.
Sure enough Villa were at it again once Mings had headed in from five yards out. As the Blades retreated deeper and deeper Smith urged his side forward as those home fans who had not set off early to beat the traffic suddenly found their voices.
The noise levels went up a decibel or two when Abraham tapped in after Dean Henderson had only been able to turn a Tommy Elphick shot into the Chelsea loanee’s path.
Abraham had his 20th goal of the season, but all that mattered was the quest for an equaliser.
John McGinn threw himself at a cross as Mings went down more in hope than expectation that referee Harrington could be persuaded to point to the spot.
United breathed a sigh of relief when the official waved away the protests, but it proved to be premature.
With the contest into the fourth of five scheduled minutes of stoppage-time Anwar El Ghazi made a dart down the wing before drilling a cross that Green gleefully pounced on to break United hearts.
Aston Villa: Kalinic; Hutton, Elphick, Mings, Taylor; Jedinak (Whelan 65), McGinn; Hourihane, El Ghazi, Kodija (Green 65); Abraham. Unused substitutes: Steer, Bjarnason, Hause, Elmohamady, Adomah.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Basham, Egan, O’Connell; Baldock, Fleck, Dowell (Cranie 74), Norwood, Stevens; Madine (McGoldrick 68), Sharp (Washington 85). Unused substitutes: Stearman, Duffy, Johnson, Moore.
Referee: T Harrington (Cleveland).