‘No excuses’ at Sheffield United, insists Stuart McCall

Sheffield United's Rhys Norrington-Davies challenges Rams' Kamil Jozwiak.  Picture: Tony JohnsonSheffield United's Rhys Norrington-Davies challenges Rams' Kamil Jozwiak.  Picture: Tony Johnson
Sheffield United's Rhys Norrington-Davies challenges Rams' Kamil Jozwiak. Picture: Tony Johnson
In the Championship, it is not unusual for a team to be brilliant in one game, useless the next.

Sheffield United’s performance at Derby County could scarcely have been further removed from the way they beat Fulham to raise hopes they could belatedly barge into the play-off picture. It was hardly surprising. The trip to Craven Cottage had been 26 Covid-disrupted days earlier.

The Blades saw plenty of the ball at Pride Park, but that was pretty much where the positives ended. They were poor with it, rarely creating chances and wasteful when they did. When the best fell to Billy Sharp, he steered it straight at Ryan Allsop.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Both Tom Lawrence’s goals were outstanding but the defending which allowed them was disappointingly weak.

Sheffield United's Stuart McCall stands in for manager Paul Heckingbottom. Picture: Tony JohnsonSheffield United's Stuart McCall stands in for manager Paul Heckingbottom. Picture: Tony Johnson
Sheffield United's Stuart McCall stands in for manager Paul Heckingbottom. Picture: Tony Johnson

Much will be made of the fact the visitors have had so little football recently, and it cannot be ignored. How much rustiness was a factor was hard to say when eight of the starters kicked off an FA Cup tie against Premier League oppostion six days earlier, and two others came off the bench.

What seemed to have been lost more than fitness was confidence. The Fulham win was their fourth on the trot. Manager Paul Heckingbottom was yet to lose a Championship game as their manager. As he was watching delayed pictures off a computer at home on Saturday, having tested positive for coronavirus at the start of the week, maybe you could argue he still is.

But the failure to turn possession into potency and their milkiness in some tackles leading up to the goals, could be put down to a lack of confidence. There was plenty before Christmas.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Apart from two moments of brilliance, Derby were no great shakes either. They are showing remarkable fight, moving off the bottom of the table and above Barnsley after giving the Reds a 21-point headstart despite losing Phil Jagielka and Graeme Shinnie the previous day because their financial limbo left them unable to renew contracts.

Just as Sheffield United failed to have a second-half shot on target, so Derby had in the first. Both goalkeepers were under constant threat, but only from frostbite.

“At half-time, it was quite buoyant in the fact we’d had a lot of the ball, we just needed to be better in possesion,” reflected Stuart McCall, the Blades’ stand-in manager.

“We were under no real threat, there was no need to panic, they’d had a bit of ball themselves but I think in our players’ eyes you lose that goal and... well, we needed a better reaction.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“My mantra has always been the same, you go from the first minute to the last minute, regardless of what the score is and if a goal goes in against you, you get the ball, get it on the spot and you go and have a right go. I didn’t really see that.”

The first hour was a non-event.

Its best chance fell to Sharp on the half-hour. When John Egan won his header at an earlier Jack Robinson long throw, he looped it up to present a routine save but this time he flicked it to Sharp, who flexed his neck muscles to put power on the effort, but could only direct it straight at the grateful goalkeeper.

The Blades had been working the ball out to Jayden Bogle on the right, where Festy Ebosele was being asked to do all the work on his own, but aside from one excellent run and pass let down by Illiman Ndiaye’s touch, too often he failed to make the most of it.

The Blades struggled to get Ndiaye and David McGoldrick, playing off and wide of Sharp, into the game very often and when they did, McGoldrick in particular was not on top of his game.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

With Derby perhaps slightly poorer, the quality of Lawrence’s opener was a bit of a shock.

When he picked up the ball after 69 minutes, he skilfully picked his way past Chris Basham, then John Egan, and poked it beyond Wes Foderingham. With 20 minutes left, it felt like game over.

“We are better than we showed,” insisted McCall. “We’ve got to prove that in the second half of the season when there’s 69 points to play for.”

That starts at Preston North End tomorrow, with Heckingbottom expected to be in the dugout.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The second goal was more alarming when viewed through red-and-white spectacles.

The brilliant Ebosele, switched to the right at half-time, won the ball deep mainly because he wanted it more than Ndiaye and Conor Hourihane. Robinson and Rhys Norrington-Davies collided trying to stop him.

Even after he reached the edge of the penalty area, the Blades had a lot of time to do something about it, but stood off Craig Forsyth, then Lawrence, who curled a wonderful finish.

The excuses were all there for Sheffield United. McCall was not interested. As Derby have grasped, the Championship only helps those who help themselves.

“Don’t mope about after it,” he demanded.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“You look at the league table and think, ‘Gosh, we’re so far behind,’ or whatever. You want the points rather than the games but it can work the other way later in the season if we are game after game and if we’re winning them, you can get momentum.

“Deal with what’s in front of you. No excuses, crack on.”

Derby County: Allsop; Byrne, Stearman, Davies, Ebosele; Knight, Bird, Thompson; Plange (Kazim-Richards 60), Jozwiak (Forsyth 46), Lawrence (Cashin 83). Unused substitutes: Morrison, Sibley, Roos, Robinson.

Sheffield United: Foderingham; Basham, Egan, Robinson (Osborn 83); Bogle, Berge (Hourihane 68), Norwood, Norrington-Davies; Ndiaye, McGoldrick (Brewster 68); Sharp. Unused substitutes: Stevens, Burke, Eastwood, Gordon.

Referee: M Atkinson (Leeds).

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.