Back-door exit leaves Sheffield United facing stiffest test yet - big-match verdict

On taerget: Gary Madine after his goal for  Sheffield United.
On taerget: Gary Madine after his goal for Sheffield United.
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THIS time, Chris Wilder was in no mood to buy the beers for his crestfallen Sheffield United players after another bitter result at the hands of Millwall.

Back in August, 2016, Wilder – still awaiting his first win as Blades manager – saw his side drop to the bottom of League One after a 2-1 away loss, with the Lions’ second goal arriving from the penalty spot in stoppage-time.

In a bid to lift his players in a smart piece of man-management – and in recognition of his side’s character-laden efforts which deserved a tangible reward – the Blades chief ordered the club’s coach driver to pull over at an off-licence and promptly gave him £100 to pay for a consignment of ale for the trip back north.

Like on that summer’s day, Saturday’s latest Lions’ meeting saw another dramatic goal at the death, with Millwall again netting in stoppage-time, but Wilder’s sober demeanour could not have been more contrasting.

He may have vented his spleen at referee David Webb straight after the final whistle for failing to blow for a free-kick in the build-up to the Lions’ shattering last-gasp leveller from Jake Cooper.

But Wilder’s overwhelming emotion was one of anger at his side’s uncharacteristically flaccid showing after taking the lead through substitute Gary Madine early in the second half.

A manager who will always stand up for his players – win, lose or draw – if they display courage on the ball and mental strength, Wilder has spoken consistently about the importance of his players ‘leaving through the front door’ with their heads held high.

Given his sentiments on Saturday evening, the United manager clearly believed that his side should have exited Bramall Lane by the back door on this occasion.

After showing immense character following that defeat at Millwall early on in Wilder’s reign, the Blades must do so again and add a bit more besides to reassert their top-two credentials and again display their famed powers of recovery under Wilder.

This is their stiffest test yet.

The body language of home players at the end of a wounding occasion which saw Billy Sharp and Chris Basham exit with hamstring injuries and John Egan dismissed late on was telling.

Many stared blankly at the floor, with sagging shoulders, barely able to comprehend the hard developments towards the end of a tense day which saw Millwall shrug off a late penalty miss to equalise in the ‘95th minute’, with Leeds United’s subsequent win intensifying the Blades’ hurt.

Hope arrives in the fact that Leeds and the Blades have swapped positions countless times this season in an absorbing promotion battle – but Saturday was undeniably harsh.

Midfielder John Fleck said: “Of course, when you concede a goal that late on in a game, it seems as though you have lost. It was just one of those days and we have to move on as quickly as possible.

“We got sloppy after our goal. We did not compose ourselves enough on the ball, going forward. That is probably why we ended up getting penned back as we were giving it away too often.

“There is still a long way to go and we just need to look forward to the next game. We are still in the mix and it is not a disaster.”

Lauded for their derring-do, the sight of United being passive and cautious after taking the lead against Millwall very much went against their natural instincts.

A nervy first-half set the tone, with the discipline of Millwall, who fielded a five-man defence, being the defining feature.

A sweet curler from David McGoldrick represented the hosts’ best moment, with Alex Pearce steering Millwall’s major opportunity wide at the far post.

After coming out early before the start of the second half, United were more like their old selves on the restart. It was illusionary.

Pressure built and United’s goal – a splendid one at that –should have been a settler.

The alert Fleck latched onto a probing pass from McGoldrick and his cutback to Madine was clever, with the striker’s low finish being equally astute.

Normal service looked restored, but Millwall – so ravenous a fortnight earlier against Leeds – produced more age-old defiance.

While United fell into the trap of protecting their gains, the Lions, fighting for their lives towards the bottom, smelled blood.

Jed Wallace volleyed just over before Dean Henderson turned away Mahlon Romeo’s drive, but the warnings were not heeded. One-time Leeds forward Tom Elliott soon rose highest to plant a header towards goal from Shane Ferguson’s cross, with Egan receiving his marching orders after palming the effort away with his hand five minutes from time.

Dismay turned to joy when Ben Marshall’s 86th-minute penalty clipped the crossbar but Millwall were far from finished.

Marshall atoned by delivering a dangerous cross which found Elliott unmarked and after his header was clawed out by Henderson, Cooper nodded in the rebound as the Lions claimed another 1-1 draw at S2 almost a year to the day since their last one.

Afterwards, Wilder referred to this result as ‘stinging’ and it was the appropriate word.