Sheffield United 4 Middlesbrough 1: Blades make it painful night on Wilder’s return

It was a night that was meant to be all about Chris Wilder’s first return to Bramall Lane as manager and yet the names sung throughout was those of “Hecky and Stuart McCall”.

Billy Sharp of Sheffield United celebrates scoring against Middlesbrough. Picture: Isaac Parkin / Sportimage
Billy Sharp of Sheffield United celebrates scoring against Middlesbrough. Picture: Isaac Parkin / Sportimage

Even on the 48th anniversary of John Denver writing Annie’s Song, it was the Status Quo-inspired chant which took precedence. That it has become the theme tune to Sheffield United’s season tells you all you need to know about the job the manager and his assistant have done filling the considerable shoes of Wilder and Alan Knill.

“They were miles better than us in every department,” Wilder admitted afterwards.

“I didn’t see it coming. But we made it so easy for them.”

Boro boss Chris Wilder acknowledges the welcome from his former club's fans. Picture: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

Back at the club he played for, then managed, Wilder’s Middlesbrough were undone by what can only be described as Chris Wilder football. Post-Wilder loan signing Morgan Gibbs-White added some beautiful flourishes, none more so than the fourth goal.

It was Billy Sharp, though, who prised the Teessiders open in the space of two minutes. Once the Blades established a 2-0 lead during Middlesbrough’s first-half landslip a hard-to-second-guess game between late-starting play-off pretenders became rather easy to predict.

The final damage was 4-1, and it was a fair reflection of the quality of the performance. Wilder received the reception he and coaches Knill and Matt Prestwich were overdue for their part in one of the most remarkable periods in Blades history, the last year of which took place behind closed doors.

Wilder made a point of applauding all four sides of the ground but once the game started it was played the only way he would want it to be – uncompromisingly.

Sander Berge celebrates his goal for Sheffield United. Picture: Isaac Parkin / Sportimage

The match had been even and light on chances until the hosts transformed it, with Sharp the inspiration. Gibbs-White played his part too, and carried on the good work.

Sheffield-born Sharp was the on-field embodiment of Wilder’s side, just as he is Heckingbottom’s. He made and scored a goal in the blink of an eye.

What Wilder would not give to be working with the talismanic striker again but then pretty much every Championship manager – except probably Fulham’s Marco Silva – would say the same.

It was Sharp whose cross Joe Lumley touched onto Marc Bola, bouncing up to give Sander Berge, the first player Wilder bought to try to take Premier League Sheffield United up a level, a tap in.

United's Sander Berge forces his past Dael Fry of Middlesbrough. Picture: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

A minute later, Oliver Norwood robbed Jonny Howson and Gibbs-White picked the ball up and fed Sharp for the second.

The effect on both sides’ confidence was very visible, Berge starting to enjoy running down the right, Sharp releasing Gibbs-White with an audacious flick, only for Lumley to save.

A move in the final half-hour, which saw Gibbs-White backheel to Berge, then cross for Rhys Norrington-Davies to head over, was almost as beautiful.

At the other end, Isaiah Jones powered down the right but Sporar ballooned a great chance. With an hour to play, it already felt like one of those nights for the Teessiders.

Shortly after Norrington-Davies’s header, Crooks booted the ball into the stands attempting to switch the play.

Middlesbrough threw men forward but were unable to clear a red-and-white barricade. McCall entertained the crowd by chiding one of them for throwing the ball back too quickly.

As the ball boy in the corner had shown when leaving Lumley to fetch the ball himself, there was no rush.

Even an injury – another one, this time to John Fleck after 38 minutes – could not derail them.

The Blades made the early second-half running, John Egan heading over at a corner, Berge shooting wide and the ricochet from a 50-50 between Sharp and Dael Fry almost going into Lumley’s net, so Duncan Watmore and Folarin Balogun were coming on when Egan headed a corner down for Jack Robinson to volley the third.

Balogun needed only a few minutes to pounce on Foderingham’s slip and score a booby prize goal but in the 79th minute Ben Osborn crossed for Gibbs-White to flick in.

As Wilder threw on every striker he could find, Heckingbottom made substitutions with standing ovations in mind, ensuring Sharp and Osborn got the recognition they deserved.

“Wilder, what’s the score?” was cruel from the Kop but they quickly switched to “Hecky, give us a wave” and got a thumbs up instead. It was very certainly his night, not Wilder’s.

Sheffield United: Foderingham; Davies, Egan, Robinson; Osborn (Gordon 86), Fleck (Hourihane 38), Norwood, Norrington-Davies; Berge, Gibbs-White; Sharp (McBurnie 85). Unused substitutes: A Davies, Ndiaye, Jebbison, Seriki.

Middlesbrough: Lumley; Peltier (Coburn 75), Fry, McNair; Jones, Tavernier, Howson, Crooks, Bola (Watmore 60); Connolly, Sporar (Balogun 60). Unused substitutes: Taylor, Bamba, Siliki, Daniels.

Referee: T Robinson (West Sussex).