Now is not the time for Sheffield United to throw in the towel

Sheffield United's Lys Mousset (right) and Crystal Palace's Cheikhou Kouyate battle for the ball. Picture: PASheffield United's Lys Mousset (right) and Crystal Palace's Cheikhou Kouyate battle for the ball. Picture: PA
Sheffield United's Lys Mousset (right) and Crystal Palace's Cheikhou Kouyate battle for the ball. Picture: PA
It must be tough being a Sheffield United player at the moment but feeling sorry for themselves could have long-term implications.

Whilst there are still 63 points to play for, all is not lost in the fight against relegation. After Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, manager Chris Wilder was again calling on his experiences of 1990-91 as part of a remarkable scramble to safety but from the juncture of two points from a possible 51, the battle is starting to look pretty close to ‘unwinnable’.

That is not the same as saying there is nothing to play for.

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It is 13 years since Derby County were relegated from the Premier League with 11 points – a record the Blades are threatening. The Rams have not been back since and are now fighting relegation to League One. These things are hard to shake off, both for clubs and players.

Crystal Palace's Jeffrey Schlupp (left) scores his side's first goal against the Blades. Picture: PACrystal Palace's Jeffrey Schlupp (left) scores his side's first goal against the Blades. Picture: PA
Crystal Palace's Jeffrey Schlupp (left) scores his side's first goal against the Blades. Picture: PA

Last season the majority of this squad were part of one of the greatest Sheffield United sides of all time. They should be doing their utmost to ensure that is what they are remembered for, not being part of the Premier League’s worst team.

If they win fewer than 11 points, there will be no asterisks in the history books to say how many games they lost by the odd goal, or pointing out how damaging injuries to Jack O’Connell and Sander Berge were.

From the Selhurst Park stands it was easy to feel sorry for the Blades, only naming six substitutes, one a 16-year-old yet to play senior football, with nine allowed. Injuries, illness and suspension are piling up on a squad whose depth was scarcely tested last season – at least pre-Covid.

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Worryingly, those inside the white lines seemed to be feeling sorry for themselves, too. It has been possible to defend Wilder’s men by pointing out that for all their shortcomings, their spirit and determination has been beyond reproach.

David McGoldrick of Sheffield Utd. Picture: Paul Terry/SportimageDavid McGoldrick of Sheffield Utd. Picture: Paul Terry/Sportimage
David McGoldrick of Sheffield Utd. Picture: Paul Terry/Sportimage

But in a first-half display summed up by goals at either end of it, the visiting team’s weak pink shirts seemed a fitting way to dress up their display.

The second half was a non-event, Palace realising as soon as Eberechi Eze ran half the length of the field past what could not be called challenges, then slotted home, that the game was won.

The Blades did not just fold but with their football still sloppy, they barely threw a punch either. At least when Sheffield-born Antwoine Hackford came off the bench for his debut in the last 10 minutes, he had a shot. His becoming the 20th 16-year-old to play Premier League football and the second-youngest player to represent the Blades was something to cling to.

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Bad days happen in football, particularly in this crazy season when the all-conquering champions lost 7-2, but after the 3-0 defeat at Southampton this was the second time in three weeks the heart of the Blades players could be questioned. It is not something they are used to, and they ought to take great offence.

The game was less than four minutes old before that “here we go again” feeling. When that gets cemented on the pitch a bad run can bleed into relegation, then longer-term demise.

Andros Townsend released Wilfried Zaha, who found Christian Benteke. Oliver Norwood slid in to cut out his pass but touched it to Jeffrey Schlupp, whose shot deflected in off John Egan. You never felt the Blades would come back from it and more importantly, you sensed they did not.

It was 29 minutes before they touched the ball in Palace’s penalty area but with David McGoldrick quickly crowded out, it was 43 before a shot on goal, Jayden Bogle’s parried after an excellent pass from the otherwise disappointing Ethan Ampadu.

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Bogle played because George Baldock was dropped to the bench after 58 consecutive league starts, and Ampadu was surprisingly selected in Chris Basham’s centre-back role whilst he played in central midfield.

That McGoldrick was sloppily offside twice in the first half was symptomatic. Although Norwood had a couple of efforts at goal in the second period, his passing throughout was way beyond the standards he set before the pandemic. He was by no means the only guilty party but the pre-coronavirus contrast made it most noticeable in him. On his 300th appearance for the club, Basham’s decision-making was muddled when McGoldrick put over a centre for him to head back across goal and he chested it out for a goal-kick.

As poor as United were, Palace were far from battering the door down. Their 4-1 win over Leeds United and 5-1 at West Bromwich Albion were out of character for a side who, despite Zaha and Eze’s flair, tend to keep goals at either end to a minimum.

Again, the Blades had cause to rue their luck.

Keith Stroud’s electronic board had shown a minimum five minutes added to the first half and in the sixth of them, Eze picked the ball up halfway into Palace’s half.

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“I’m listening to the fourth official counting down and he said, ‘That’s it,’ about four times (to referee Stuart Attwell),” revealed Wilder, adding: “I know I’m clutching a bit.”

What the Blades could do something about, as Wilder acknowledged, was the feeble resistance to Eze’s run.

Zaha petulantly raised his hands to Bogle in the second half, and on another day Eze’s hefty tackle on Ampadu might have got more than a yellow card but it was more straw-clutching. The Blades would have needed more than an extra man to score.

It was a day to forget for them. They have lost the mojo that made them such a joy to watch last season but they simply cannot lose the fight, too.

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