The campaign still has at least 11 matches to be played. A lot of damage can be done in that time.
It is hard to be too critical. John Egan, Sander Berge, Chris Basham, Jack Robinson, Jack O’Connell and Jack Rodwell were injured, Phil Jagielka watching from the stands after his harsh red card against Aston Villa.
We would like to think that as long as the pay cheques keep dropping in their bank accounts footballers would fight to the bitter end but they are human beings.
It must be hard continually lifting yourself for a battle which, in all honesty, has been lost for a long time.
In the second half at Bramall Lane, it looked to have beaten them, the makeshift defensive unit regularly breaking down as those in front continually gave the ball away.
Had Southampton come into the game with more than a point from the last 27 available, and had goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale not continued his recent good form, the score could have been far more painful.
Perhaps it was not a game too many this season, maybe just one more than they could cope with in a seven-day period which saw them play three times, the second victoriously in hugely creditable circumstances after Jagielka’s dismissal.
A team so far adrift of Premier League safety cannot be expected to string together a run of consistent results – not positive ones, anyway – but at least if they can bloody a nose from time to time to show they are still alive, that should do them good. An FA Cup quarter-final at Chelsea a week on Sunday would be a great time to do it next, even if it means an extra match.
The worry when you see a performance as poor as that against the Saints, where the players looked so demoralisingly demoralised, is that it might set in.
Sheffield United are not living up to their name at the moment. Manager Chris Wilder’s media warning flares about relations with the owner were followed by another grenade on Saturday, this time into the dressing room.
“There’s a couple (of players) who need to go,” he said. “They have to go at the end of the season. I’d like to shake it up quicker.”
Injuries mean there is no realistic scope to exile them without further self-harm. Illiman Ndiaye and Frankie Maguire made up the numbers on the bench again, Wilder having made it plain before the game they were there on work experience, not to play.
If it is hard for players to lift themselves for a lost battle, it must be even harder to do so for a manager and club that does not want them but they should be fighting their human instincts and trying even more – their next transfer might depend on it.
This has not been a good season for gambles at Bramall Lane, as another goalless performance cut short by a substitution for £24m striker Rhian Brewster showed. He worked hard again but when David McGoldrick had the chance to play him in during the first half, the angle of the pass was way off.
John Lundstram risked rejecting the contract the Blades have been pushing his way since last season in favour of becoming a free agent in the summer, so there seems little point playing him – especially on afternoons as poor as Saturday’s.
His failure to clear properly saw former Blade Che Adams go from shooting from an optimistic angle to smashing a half-volley past Ramsdale. As soon as that hit the net in the 49th minute, adding to James Ward-Prowse’s penalty, it became a question of how many more the Saints would score.
“John Fleck was decent but the two other midfield players were chalk and cheese,” said Wilder, who at half-time substituted Oliver Norwood for the ninth time in 19 starts this season.
Meanwhile, Ben Osborn watched from the bench.
That no more goals followed was down to Ramsdale’s low save from Nathan Tella, another with his legs from Adams, and one from Nathan Redmond, all after the Blades sloppily gave the ball away, plus misses by Takumi Minamino and Stuart Armstrong.
Wilder put a more positive gloss on the first half but this team struggled with Tella’s pace and conceded so many fouls – 10 in the opening 45 minutes – Ward-Prowse was bound to make them pay.
Minutes after a brilliant tackle on Ryan Bertrand, Ethan Ampadu made a challenge on Tella which although referee Paul Tierney gave some thinking time to, was only going to end in a penalty converted by Southampton’s captain. Ampadu’s season-long loan has been a bit like that.
Now the players must recharge and lift themselves for Sunday’s trip to Leicester City. So must Wilder, who was incredibly down at full-time, as he often has been this season only to be bubbly and joking at the next pre-match press conference. There must be a limit to how often he can make that recovery, but hopefully it is some way off.
“You have to go through the process again and do the work that tries to prepare you for the weekend,” he said. “I lift myself because that’s how I’ve been brought up and how I work. I’ve got lovely beautiful people around me in my family and sometimes a bit of perspective in your life doesn’t go amiss. I’ll be all right, I’ll be okay. I’ll get on with it, which we all have to.
“It’s been a tough gig all season because we have taken an awful lot of punches and we took another one on Saturday.”
Seeing people ride punches can fill you with admiration, but there is a nagging worry about the long-term damage it is doing.
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