Sheffield United v Wigan: Unsworth penalty still felt nine years down line

The last time Wigan visited Bramall Lane they ended up sending Sheffield United crashing out of the Premier League.

Wigan Athletic's David Unsworth, left, celebrates scoring a penalty against Sheffield United that ultimately relegated the Blades from the Premier League in 2007.

David Unsworth’s 45th-minute penalty was enough to earn a 2-1 win on May 13, 2007, which saw the Lancashire club stay up on goal difference on 38 points, and sent the Blades down.

Nine years later and the Blades are languishing in League One, where they are in their fifth attempt at trying to escape the third tier of English football.

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But their decline can be charted back to that fateful May day when Jon Stead cancelled out Paul Scharner’s first-half effort, only for former Blade Unsworth to net the all-important goal.

John Brayford against Peterborough Utd. (Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportmage )

Today the Roses duo meet again at Bramall Lane, the three points needed as both clubs strive for promotion to the Championship.

But it’s interesting to look at that 2006-07 Premier League table, featuring nine teams who no longer reside in the top flight.

Bolton finished seventh, just ahead of Reading, Portsmouth – now in League Two – and Blackburn in the top 10. Also at English football’s top table that season were Middlesbrough – who finished above 14th-placed Manchester City – Fulham and Charlton.

Wigan enter today’s game sitting fourth – 10 points better off than ninth-placed United.

John Brayford against Peterborough Utd. (Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportmage )

While defeat for Nigel Adkins’s side today would not be as decisive as nine years ago – a loss this afternoon could leave United five points outside the play-offs – it is a huge game for the hosts.

Just one win in six games in 2016, coupled with a lack of new arrivals in the January transfer window, means Blades supporters are becoming restless.

But defender John Brayford insists the fans need to stick with the team.

“That frustration from the fans has probably been there over five years,” said Brayford. “We have got some new lads – I have only been here 12 months permanently – and I know how good the crowd have been in the past.

“Little things probably irritate them, it’s just the progress made over the years. It’s great when they stick with us, but they are right to voice their opinion because it costs a lot of money to watch football.

“We just need to ask them to stay with us through the game, because it gives us, the lads, that extra 10 per cent.”

Putting a positive spin on United’s recent results, they have lost just two league games since the beginning of November.

But six have been league draws – including a 3-3 meeting at Wigan last month – and 28-year-old Brayford believes if United could have converted a couple of those into wins, their league position would look a lot healthier.

“It would have been nice if we could have taken a few of them draws and turned them into victories, so we could have put a couple more points on the board,” he said.

“But that’s not the case, and we have got to deal with what’s in front of us.

“We would have liked to pick up a few more wins, some extra points, but at least we are keeping up the momentum.

“We are not losing as many games as we were earlier in the season. We are still in the play-off promotion push, but automatic promotion is still a few points ahead of us.

“We expected, at the start of our season, and that was our aim to be up there. At the start of the season there was a few changes to the starting XI, but now we have a more settled team.

“That’s been beneficial. I know we have picked up a few draws, but I don’t think we have lost that many in the league just recently.”

The game at Wigan was an example of where United could have pinched a win, storming back from 3-0 down but eventually having to settle for a 3-3 draw.

Former Derby County defender Brayford recalled: “It was a bit mental. We should have been the team that went on and won (at Wigan).

“Their goalkeeper pulled off a great save in the last few seconds. You never know, that may be in the back of their minds (today).

“I would imagine their manager is drilling into them they need to perform like they did for the first hour of that game. Visa-versa, we need to perform like we did in the last half hour.

“Wigan are one of our promotion rivals. When we went to their place we started really slowly and did well to get back in the game. Today is a chance for us to lay down a marker, because it’s getting to the nitty-gritty end of the season.”

United were frustrated in a 1-1 draw with Swindon Town last time out at Bramall Lane, when the visitors enjoyed the majority of possession.

That tested the patience of United supporters, but Brayford said: “Everybody knows how Swindon like to play, but I thought we had the better chances throughout the game.

“The crowd would probably like for us to have more possession – and we do ourselves – but sometimes it’s a chance to counter-attack these teams. If that means giving the ball away sometimes, then so be it.

“We would love to have 70 per cent possession every single game, but it just doesn’t work out like that.”

United trail second-placed Walsall by 14 points with 18 games remaining, and automatic promotion this season seems unlikely. And United’s players know it will take a freak run of results to finish in the top two this season.

“We have not ruled it out, but I think to any realistic person it looks a good catch,” said Brayford.

“We have 18 games left, and if we win all 18 we will be up there. But it’s just about how many we can win.”