DIFFICULT weeks during manager Chris Wilder’s tenure at Bramall Lane are hard to find – more especially in 2017.
In a year when nearly everything has turned to gold for the Sheffield United manager and his redoubtable charges, last night was one of the rare occasions when events conspired against him and his side.
On a night when adversity smacked the Blades firmly in the face following the dismissal of John Fleck just before the hour mark and luck failed to befriend them – as they hit the woodwork for a record four times in a Championship game this season – there was time for another cruel twist.
It arrived in the first minute of stoppage-time when goalscoring defender Aden Flint denied the 10-man hosts a point that they certainly deserved when he rifled home his sixth goal of the season following Bobby Reid’s cross.
After grabbing a last-gasp winner almost a fortnight earlier at Hull City, the visitors inflicted more late misery upon another Yorkshire side in the Blades to extend their unbeaten away sequence to 10 matches in the process.
The result extended the fourth-placed Blades’ winless run to four matches – equalling their longest sequence without a victory under Wilder.
But despite a tough finale, the United manager would have at least been consoled by the sight of his side returning to their old selves.
After reading the riot act to his side following their uncharacteristically poor performance at Millwall last Saturday, Wilder witnessed the response he sought, with the Blades dominant in the first half with their performance rated as “outstanding” by Robins head coach Lee Johnson.
Their start to the second half after unjustly falling behind to Jamie Paterson’s 43rd-minute opener was also scintillating and after Leon Clarke crowned his November player of the month award with his tenth goal in six games – and 14th of the season – to restore parity there only looked one likely outcome.
But the dynamic of the game shifted when Fleck was dismissed for a two-footed challenge on Korey Smith, who soon hobbled off. This development and the late strike by Flint will certainly inflict pain on Wilder, with Fleck now absent from the fray until December 30. But not his side’s performance.
His side dominated the first half and produced a powerhouse spell in the build-up to the interval, only to be hit by a late sucker punch.
It was totally against the run of play, with Paterson seeing his 20-yarder fly past Simon Moore.
It rubbed a vat of salt into the wounds of the Blades, who had justifiable cause to rue their misfortune.
Five minutes before Paterson’s strike, an incredible reaction save arrived from Frank Fielding, who turned Billy Sharp’s header onto the woodwork.
Moments before that, Sharp’s instinctive curling shot clipped the crossbar following a rapid break.
Incredibly, the hosts also had cause to rue the woodwork on a third occasion when Mark Duffy’s sweet curled free-kick struck a post.
Flint also cleared a Fleck cross off the line, and Fielding turned away Duffy’s fierce drive although, in fairness, the Robins were plainly not here just to make up the numbers.
Fluency, pace and artful movement arrived on the break at interludes, with their most dangerous moment arriving when Nathan Baker’s header sailed just wide.
The hosts did not have to dwell upon the harsh interval scoreline for long with a leveller soon arriving with a second eye-catching goal of the night, courtesy of Clarke who fired home an unstoppable drive after cutting in from the right.
It was the prelude to another Blades onslaught, only for a post, incredibly, to come to the visitors’ rescue yet again following Duffy’s precision curler, with Flint blocking Sharp’s follow-up.
Even accounting for the divine intervention of the woodwork, the expected outcome of the game looked to a be a home victory if the pressure continued, only for the narrative to change in an instant.
It was an inauspicious moment in a hitherto vintage season for Fleck, with the significant momentum generated by the hosts disappearing and the home support stunned into silence.
City suddenly started to fancy their chances again, with Moore called into action to turn away a deflected goalbound strike from Marlon Pack before Duffy got in the way of a low drive from Josh Brownhill that was otherwise destined to nestle in the net.
But the visitors found a way at the finish.
Sheffield United: Moore; Basham (Carruthers 86), Stearman, O’Connell; Baldock, Lundstrum, Fleck, Duffy (Brooks 77), Stevens; Clarke, Sharp (Donaldson 80). Unused substitutes: Blackman, Wright, Carter-Vickers, Lafferty.
Bristol City: Fielding; Wright, Flint, Baker, Bryan; Pack (Leko 76), Eliason (Djuric 45), Smith (Taylor 62), Brownhill, Paterson; Reid. Unused substitutes: Steele, Vyner, Magnusson, Woodrow.
Referee: D Coote (West Yorkshire).