The Premier League can be a cruel mistress, and it handed Sheffield United some very harsh lessons last night.
Ignore the controversial decision by video assistant referee Andre Marriner, and the Blades were victims of a smash-and-grab, Newcastle United nicking an early lead against the run of play and clinging to it for dear life. The Blades had 73 per cent of the ball and more than twice Newcastle’s shots but those are not the numbers which matter in football. The 2-0 scoreline is.
But it was impossible to ignore VAR. For a system supposed to bring clarity and end controversy, it has dominated a lot of debates this season. It still needs refining, it is a pity the experimentation is being carried out in the world’s wealthiest, highest-profile football league.
“We’ve got one tonight,” admitted Newcastle’s Steve Bruce.
The man he used to manage at Bramall Lane, Chris Wilder was justifiably grumpy.
To lose for the first time in eight matches was harsh, but in the circumstances Sheffield United did was just plain cruel. Jonjo Shelvey’s match-deciding goal which will bring more angst about the way technology is being used.
When Andy Carroll won a 70th-minute header, the flag was raised as Shelvey ran onto the flick-on but Stuart Atwell did not whistle. Everyone in red-and-white stripes watched the midfielder run through and as Dean Henderson offered no resistance, the crowd booed Shelvey putting the ball in. Newcastle had been wasting time ever since Allan Saint-Maximin put them in front.
But Premier League goals are now routinely referred to the monitors at Stockley Park, and when Marriner had drawn his lines on the pitch, he could see neither Carroll nor Shelvey had strayed. The goal was given. It was technically correct and deeply unsatisfactory.
“We’re learning a different game,” said Wilder, who a couple of months ago was in favour of VAR. “I’m a bit drained by it and sick of it. I don’t think anybody knows where they are.
“We were told at the start of the season the linesman would keep his flag down.
“Even Jonjo didn’t give me the impression he was in and one-versus-one, it was a token.
“The decision is right but the game’s changed in a heartbeat.
“I really want to be talking about our first season back in the Premier League.”
Until then, it had been Martin Dubravka exasperating the Blades and their supporters.
Crosses were Sheffield United’s best weapon but they either narrowly failed to find their target, as when the recalled Oli McBurnie was a fraction away from Oli Norwood’s corner, or when they did, Dubravka was up to it.
What little threat Newcastle posed in the early stages came from the headband-wearing Saint-Maximin. When he twinkled his toes at the byline, his cross could only find Henderson. McBurnie went straight down the other end, curling just beyond the angle of post and crossbar.
Having teed up a Miguel Almiron shot which was quickly smothered, Saint-Maximin outjumped Chris Basham to powerfully steer Javier Manquillo’s cross in.
Newcastle built two lines of defence and did their best to run down the clock.
When McBurnie won a header after 19 minutes, Dubravka made another excellent stretching save. John Egan made powerful contact with a John Fleck free-kick, but Dubravka did not have to move his feet, only his hands above his head.
Half-time did not really change anything. The Blades continued to press, Dubravka to impress, tipping over a McBurnie header.
John Lundstram’s curling cross was the ball of the night, but Sharp was offside. Even with half an hour to play, it felt like one of those nights.
Wilder went 4-3-1-2 going on for 2-5-1-2.
“We gave it a go after that but it sucked the life out of my players and 29,000 Sheffield United fans,” said Wilder.
VAR had struck again. It seems to have something against the Blades this season.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham (Luke Freeman 75), Egan, O’Connell, Baldock, Lundstram, Norwood (McGoldrick 72), Fleck, Stevens, McBurnie, Sharp (Mousset 63). Unused substitutes: Robinson, Jagielka, Moore, Besic.
Newcastle: Dubravka, Manquillo, Fernandez, Clark, Dummett, Willems, Almiron (Krafth 88), Hayden, Shelvey, Saint-Maximin (Atsu 81), Carroll (Joelinton 72). Unused substitutes: Schar, Gayle, Darlow, Sean Longstaff.
Referee: S Attwell (Warwickshire).