For the first time in eight seasons, Yorkshire has no representative in the last 16 of the League Cup in its various guises, with the last rites – fittingly in the circumstances – played out at in front of a modest and understandably subdued Bramall Lane crowd of 11,675 last night.
Honest as the day is long, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder had insisted ahead of the game that the Carabao Cup did not represent a genuine opportunity to lift silverware for his Blades side.
Yet his desire to see his squad members put pressure on those players currently in possession of first-team jerseys in the Premier League was not open to question. The natural competitive juices and Unitedite emotions which will always stir lifelong fan Wilder on any given match-day, were a further reminder that every game matters to the 52-year-old.
The not inconsequential factor of those in red and white playing their way into potential involvement for Saturday’s marquee fixture with Liverpool should also have been a prime motivator for those who took the field.
In the event, the Blades chief witnessed precious little to get excited about. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Few, if anyone, advanced their causes in a listless showing, more especially in an abject and hugely disappointing second half as United suffered their fourth successive home exit under Wilder in this particular competition.
It is in league matters where Wilder – regularly heralded by Sheffield United followers as ‘one of our own’ – has excelled, but the cup has certainly provided respite for his opposite number Jack Ross. Serenaded by chants of ‘you don’t know what you are doing’ and ‘sacked in the morning’ from sections of angry Wearsiders during the weekend draw at Bolton, Ross was entitled to feel happier about things after presiding over a second successive knock-out victory on Premier League soil after Sunderland’s win in the previous round at Burnley.
The early evidence suggested that a much-changed United side were treating the competition seriously, with the hosts mustering more shots on target in the opening stages than they produced in the entirety of their game at Everton at the weekend.
But the optimism proved fleeting as Sunderland – who led on nine minutes after a sublime strike from Max Power – won more comfortably than their single-goal margin implied.
Early promise had seen Callum Robinson, the only Blades player on show who started at Goodison Park, denied by a fine one-handed parry after cutting inside menacingly from the left, with Sunderland keeper Lee Burge soon grasping Luke Freeman’s drive.
The initial tempo was eye-catching with those handed starts seemingly intent on planting a seed in the mind of Wilder ahead of the weekend, but the real food for thought was soon provided by a stunning opener from the Wearsiders.
A well-worked corner routine saw Luke O’Nien lay the ball into the path of Power, who showed exquisite technique to curl home a wonderful 20-yarder straight into the top corner.
Suitably emboldened, the visitors tested the agility of Simon Moore, who was forced to turn away Elliot Embleton’s shot.
At the other end, Lys Mousset was inches away from turning in Robinson’s superb low cross as the hosts sought to restore parity.
Unfortunately, it proved the precursor to United disappointingly losing their way, with Sunderland managing to protect their precious lead in relative comfort for the rest of the half and win their battles in key areas of the pitch.
Wilder will have wanted more on the resumption from those in home jerseys. Instead, it was Sunderland, for whom Power and Dylan McGeough was forceful presences in midfield all night, who continued to impose their will.
Leon Clarke – making his first appearance since January 19 – and Oli McBurnie were thrown on to provide United with some impetus but it was Sunderland supporters amusing themselves with a chant of ‘Premier League, you are having a laugh’ in the direction of the hosts.
Sheffield United: Moore; Jagielka, Stearman, Bryan (Fleck 70); K Freeman, Morrison, Besic, L Freeman, Osborn; Robinson (Clarke 57), Mousset (McBurnie 57). Unused substitutes: Stevens, Basham, Norwood, Verrips.
Sunderland: Burge; McLaughlin, Flanagan, Lynch, De Bock; McGeouch, Power; O’Nien, Embleton (Hume 45), Maguire (Dobson 90); Wyke. Unused substitutes: Patterson, Grigg, Leadbitter, Taylor, Connelly.
Referee: T Robinson (West Sussex).