If offering Chris Wilder a new four-year contract was the very definition of a no-brainer, Sheffield United’s manager could never have expected a present from the video assistant referee to celebrate.
Just when it looked like the Blades had scraped their way to a victory which would put them fifth in the Premier League their old foe, former Leeds United and Hull City player Robert Snodgrass ran onto a Declan Rice pass and squeezed a shot past Dean Henderson and into the net off the post to score a stoppage-time equaliser. Or so he thought.
The scourge of United’s season, VAR, remarkably came to Wilder’s rescue. After reviewing the evidence from Stockley Park, Chris Kavanagh spotted a handball as Rice tussled with John Egan in the build-up, and the goal was chalked off.
The Blades won 1-0, and Wilder played his part.
Good managers have to be many things – shrewd tacticians, canny team selectors, and sympathetic agony aunts. Old-schoolers like Wilder who are still allowed to need to be good transfer wheeler-dealers too.
They also have to be able to motivate their men. It might be a coincidence, but not for the first time this season, the Blades were better after 15 minutes locked in a dressing room with Wilder than they had been before it.
A poor 45 minutes happens from time to time with this Blades side making the step up to the Premier League for the first time. Two in a game, though, is rare.
After back-to-back defeats at Manchester City and Liverpool, they made a disappointing start to last night’s match against West Ham, yet still came away with three points. Just.
For those who came to Bramall Lane in the mood for a party to celebrate four more years of Wilder, the football took a long time to catch the mood.
At no point was it a classic performance, but the hard-fought nature of it and the dramatic finale only added to its sweetness. Both sides laboured in a low-key first half and of the few chances there were, the better ones fell to the Hammers, revitalised by the reappearance of David Moyes in their dugout.
The best chance of the first 45 minutes was basic in its inception, a long ball from the visiting goalkeeper which Egan tried to head away, but instead flicked into the path of Felipe Anderson. Under pressure from Chris Basham, he dragged his shot wide.
Earlier, Sebastien Haller had fallen over after forcing his way down the right, and ballooned his shot over. Arthur Masuaku took an early shot in the 34th minute, and would have benefited from taking his time.
United’s first 45 minutes was full of nearly moments – Enda Stevens’s cross just curling in front of John Lundstram, Oliver Norwood’s pass too firm for Oli McBurnie, Egan’s header over at a corner, and a pass from Lundstram which would have been brilliant if only McBurnie’s long left leg had been able to stretch to it. David McGoldrick’s attempted header 10 minutes before half-time appeared to come off his shoulder.
We had been here before. The Blades were poor in the first halves at West Ham and Norwich City, but not the second. After 15 minutes in Wilder’s company, they again came out a different proposition.
Lukasz Fabianski’s fourth match back after a hip problem lasted only 14 minutes before he limped off after taking a goalkick to be replaced by David Martin. It would be crucial to the result.
When Martin’s pass went wide of Balbuena, John Fleck ensured the Blades punished him in a way he had been unable to minutes earlier, feeding McBurnie to shoot under the goalkeeper.
The 54th-minute goal was no less than United deserved for the way they came out of the blocks after the interval.
Fleck had a 50th-minute shot blocked, and when the ball rebounded to him, Martin left plenty of netting to aim at, but the Scot’s shot was narrowly wide.
At 1-0, George Baldock had a shot blocked froma tight angle, and Lundstram headed the corner wide. When Fleck’s excellent pass put substitute Lys Mousset through, Martin made a good save with his feet.
Not that it was game over once United went in front, Henderson at full stretch to keep out a free-kick Manuel Lanzini. “England’s No 1” sang those in the stands, though probably not Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate.
It looked like disaster had struck in stoppage time as Rice outmuscled Egan and picked out substitute Snodgrass.
Moyes leapt in the air in celebration, Wilder had a face like thunder. No one seemed to have considered the possibility of a handball in the build-up. Kavanagh rose to his task as spoilsport, though, and found the salvation the Blades fans were hoping for, but never really expected.
With a full complement of matches to play this weekend, it is unlikely to stay that way but for now the Blades are back in the Europa League places. No wonder they are so keen to keep hold of Mr Motivator.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Basham, Egan, O’Connell; Baldock, Lundstram (Besic 70), Norwood, Fleck, Stevens; McBurnie (Sharp 84), McGoldrick (Mousset 60). Unused substitutes: Robinson, Eastwood, Jagielka, Osborn.
West Ham: Fabianski (Martin 14); Zabaleta, Balbuena, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Anderson, Rice, Noble, Masuaku (Snodgrass 64); Lanzini (Fornals 84); Haller. Unused substitutes: Soares Cardoso, Diop, Costa Da Rosa, Ngakia.
Referee: M Oliver (Ashington).