Sheffield Utd 1 Walsall 2: Blades' Trophy loss will not be felt too keenly

LOOKING around Bramall Lane last night, Sheffield United did not immediately look like a club on the up.

Sheffield United Matt Done reacts to a missed opportunity in the defeat to Walsall (Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage).
Sheffield United Matt Done reacts to a missed opportunity in the defeat to Walsall (Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage).

Only the John Street Stand was open to home fans ,but even that contained swathes of empty seats.

Appearances, however, can be deceptive. The season is hotting up nicely for the Blades thanks to a seven-game run in League One that has yielded 17 points and propelled Chris Wilder’s men up to fourth in the table.

Considering United were bottom just five weeks ago after conceding a last-minute penalty at Millwall, this represents some turnaround.

Last night may have seen United crash out of the Checkatrade Trophy thanks to a defeat against Walsall.

But this may well prove to be a blessing, not least because the summer revamp has made the competition not only a turn-off for the football public – hence the paltry 2,619 crowd at the Lane –but also a mess.

Come the third round, the regionalised draw will be abandoned in favour of a free-for-all that could, for instance, see any Yorkshire side still involved handed a long, draining trip to Swansea or Norwich to take on an Under-23s side.

Just what any manager whose main focus is promotion needs in the depths of winter.

United, to be fair, gave it their all against the Saddlers. But the hosts were undone by goals from Scott Laird and Amadou Bakayoko either side of half-time.

Paul Coutts did set up a nervy finale for the Saddlers with a rifled shot after Craig MacGillivray had flapped at a corner 12 minutes from time, but there was to be no equaliser despite United’s best efforts.

Defeat for Grimsby Town at home to Leicester City’s youngsters in Group H’s other fixtures means next month’s trip to Blundell Park is the ultimate dead rubber in what, thanks to the Football League’s meddling, increasingly has the look of a dying competition.

Wilder’s disappointment at being beaten was evident at the final whistle.

But he knows this season will be judged on how the Blades fare in the league and not in competitions that the Football League have turned into something of a joke.

“This is a club that expects promotion,” said the 49-year-old when asked by The Yorkshire Post about United’s league ambitions. “And that is an expectation on which we have to deliver.

“It takes time, of course it does. You can’t just expect things to fall into place straight away. But I believe we are making the right progress.”

United are without a game this weekend due to Walsall’s second scheduled visit inside four days to the Lane being postponed due to international call-ups for the Midlands side.

It is a shame, as, even allowing for last night’s defeat, momentum is with Wilder’s men and a crowd that is likely to have been pushing 20,000 would have been a much better gauge as to the feel-good factor that has been engendered by the recent run.

Wilder, of course, arrived during the summer amid a level of expectation that will have been familiar to predecessors Nigel Adkins, Nigel Clough, David Weir et al in recent years.

“I would have been naive to think we would smash it from day one,” admits the lifelong Blade, who last season led Northampton Town to the League Two title.

“Everyone knows this is the club I support.

“It would be difficult for me to claim it is just another win when we win or just another defeat when we lose.

“There is a responsibility that all of us feel for a lot of people.

“But, equally, we have to be balanced. We have to get the passion right and I think we are doing that on the pitch.

“When this club has been successful in the past, the players have been proud to be here and I think the fans can see what representing this club means to the players.”

The August 20 loss at Millwall hurt.

No matter that the table was of the fledgling variety due to just four games having been played, seeing United rock bottom of a division the bookmakers had once again forecast the South Yorkshire club would win was not nice.

“You look at the table, of course you do,” added Wilder when asked about that difficult start. “And it wasn’t nice.

“We had wanted to come out of the traps fast, but it didn’t happen. But if you scratched a little under the surface – and those who watched our games will know what I mean – things were not bad.

“We were not a million miles away from getting a result and the recent run shows that to be the case.”