After the revelry of the 25th, sometimes Boxing Day can just be a bit flat. Yesterday was one of those days for Sheffield United.
Manager Chris Wilder called it “a huff and puff performance” as his side laboured a touch to a 1-1 draw with Watford.
There was no shortage of perspiration, just a lack of inspiration from all but Watford’s brilliant goalkeeper Ben Foster.
But for his outstanding save the Blades would have signed off a magnificent 2019 at Bramall Lane with victory.
It was a decent day, not a great day as a game that started ten minutes late for safety reasons never fully got going.
“We weren’t at the levels we’ve set this year or standards and it showed,” admitted captain Oliver Norwood.
When we’re at our best I always feel it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming and it never really felt like that, even late on.Chris Wilder
Long balls were the way forward for both sides, and for the first hour Watford and Gerard Deulofeu made the most of them before Lys Mousset left the Sheffield United bench to provide the same direct route to success.
But whereas Deulofeu gave the Hornets an against-the-run-of-play lead in the first half – from Foster’s hoof downfield – the winner Mousset ought to have created seconds after coming on was not forthcoming.
A one-two with David McGoldrick released Mousset down the line in the 63rd minute and the Frenchman delivered a cross begging for a finish from the late-arriving John Fleck.
His weight going the wrong way, Foster somehow managed to not only get to the ball, but lift it over the post.
It was the first time Bramall Lane went on pause for a second, as supporters tried to comprehend just how the net was not rippling.
“I still think John should have scored if he just opens his body up and eases it into the far corner,” said the ever-demanding Wilder.
Foster’s first great save came in the 11th minute.
With Jack O’Connell driving a cross, he needed his reflexes to be sharp to keep out Oli McBurnie. He saved a header from the centre-forward a minute later.
Watford manager Nigel Pearson thought he had discovered “the weakness in a fabulous brand of football” with Deulofeu’s goal.
When Foster’s long ball was flicked to him in the 27th minute, the Spaniard picked his spot as Dean Henderson took a few steps off his line.
Within ten minutes the Blades were level, George Baldock clumsily brought down by Will Hughes as he headed outside the area chasing John Lundstram’s lay-off.
Foster guessed the right way but even he, on this form, could not keep out Norwood’s fierce spot-kick.
Once Foster saved from Fleck, then kept out Enda Stevens, there was an air of inevitability about the result.
Deulofeu could even have won it but as Henderson stood rooted to the spot and Bramall Lane held its breath, his 82nd-minute free-kick went just wide.
“I thought it was a fair result,” said Wilder.
“There were too many touches first half, and we possibly overplayed. In the second half when we did play quicker and overloaded we couldn’t find that final, ball, run, pass, finish.
“We did okay in the first half and set the game up to really take it to the next level and I expected us to do that but we never really got going, we made too many bad decisions, went a little bit individual.
“We never really built up momentum and pressure.
“When we’re at our best I always feel it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming and it never really felt like that, even late on.
“It wasn’t a lack of desire but we were just a little bit off the pace.
“Still we feel the key moments belonged to us but we didn’t find that bit of quality that wins a tight game.
“I’m not expecting it always, I’m not daft, but we have to demand that.”
Wilder, often so quick to throw strikers off the bench, limited himself to one substitute.
“Part of me really wanted to go for it but I didn’t think we were good enough and if we did open it up, we would have got done,” explained Wilder.
Former Sheffield Wednesday captain Pearson’s team are off the bottom of the Premier League after four points from their last two games, and at full-time he was able to reflect: “I think for all the possession and pressure Sheffield United had, we still kept them at arm’s length.
“We made it difficult for Sheffield United to find that winner.”
Sheffield United: Henderson; Basham, Egan, O’Connell; Baldock, Lundstram, Norwood, Fleck, Stevens; McGoldrick, McBurnie (Mousset 63). Unused substitutes: L Freeman, Sharp, Robinson, Jagielka, Verrips, Besic.
Watford: Foster; Mariappa, Kabasele, Cathcart, Femenia; Capoue, Chalobah (Dawson 88); Sarr (Pereyra 46), Hughes, Deulofeu; Deeney (Gray 80). Unused substitutes: Gomes,Quina, Success, Dele-Bashiru.
Referee: D Coote (Nottinghamshire).