Fleetwood Town extended their unbeaten run to 11 League games as goals from Conor McLaughlin and Devante Cole gave the visitors a 2-0 win at Bramall Lane.
United are now without a win in three matches after their 4-1 away defeat at Walsall was followed up by a 2-2 home draw against Gillingham, a run that came after six straight wins, and they were punished for their profligacy in front of goal in what was a frustrating night for the Blades.
McLaughlin pounced on a wayward shot from Bobby Grant to put the Cod Army in front before Devante Cole capitalised on a defensive mix-up midway through the second-half to net his fourth goal of the season.
‘Ecstasy or disaster’
It left United boss Chris Wilder seething at the full-time whistle, although the Blades’ chief made it clear that he’s confident that the side can retain their current spot at the summit of League One despite the recent form that has left them with one point from a possible nine. He said: “We’ve got a good group. It’s always ecstasy or disaster. After the Southend game it was ecstasy, we were going to win [the League] by 15 or 20 points, and now possibly there will be a few murmurings that we’ll struggle to get in the play-offs.
“That’s part and parcel of being involved in a football club, I understand more than anyone else, but it’s up to us, the players, me, to pick the right formation to get it right. There’s still a load of football to be played.
“We’ll be fine, the players are hurting. We’re not getting torn apart, we have to cut out the silly mistakes and whatever way we go about it we have to a bit cuter, a little bit better at the top of the pitch.”
The Blades made two changes from their frustrating result with Gillingham as Caolan Lavery and Matt Done made way for Daniel Lafferty, who made his loan from Burnley permanent during the January transfer window, and Marc McNulty, who was a substitute in the match against the Gills after being recalled from his loan at Bradford City.
Fleetwood, meanwhile, dropped their two top goal scorers to the bench in an attempt to shore up the defence while giving a full debut to Markus Schwabi following his move from the German third tier, but it was the hosts who forced the first save of the match when Billy Sharp tamely headed a Kieron Freeman cross into the keeper’s arms.
It then took a superb save from his opposite number, Simon Moore, to deny Wes Burns’ drilled effort from the left as his outstretched arm tipped it around the post, and Cole cleared the bar with an acrobatic effort from the resulting corner.
United wasted little time in the January transfer window as Wilder secured the services of experienced Bradford City front man James Hanson and creative midfielder Jay O’Shea, joining on-loan from Chesterfield and, while neither featured against the Trawlermen, it undoubtedly shows the intent from the Blades as they look to charge to the title and ensure that there is no more Wembley heart-ache or last minute slip-ups.
For all their attacking recruits, though, Fleetwood took the lead on 20-minutes. Bobby Grant’s miscued shot from range fell neatly to the feet of skipper Conor McLaughlin who executed a perfect, first-time side-foot finish in space to stun the Lane faithful and send them into a period of frustration.
A late tackle from Schwabi momentarily awakened the Unitedites shortly after with the midfielder the first to enter the referee’s notebook, but the agitation soon returned as the Blades struggled to fashion chances as crosses from Freeman and Lafferty were hit with too much power.
After Mark Duffy lost possession in midfield Town flooded forward on the counter and, when the ball was eventually switched to Burns inside the area, the former Bristol City frontman was denied by the onrushing Moore who made himself big to thwart the shot. You sensed at the time that it may have been a costly miss.
Town boss Uwe Rosler has built a side that are undoubtedly well-drilled and difficult to break down, hence their healthy and arguably overachieving play-off position, and they had to be alert as the Blades committed men forward before the break. Thankfully for the visitors the Blades lacked conviction in the final third.
They did, however, have one final chance to draw level before the half-time whistle when Schwabi pulled back Duffy on the edge of the area, but the midfielder’s strike from the free kick was collected comfortably by Alex Cairns as the curtains closed on a tough-to-watch first-half.
Evidently unimpressed by what he saw in the opening 45-minutes, Wilder made a double sub at the interval by taking off defender Chris Basham and replacing him with midfielder Stefan Scougall while Lavery took the place of McNulty up front.
The change almost paid dividends with the Blades attacking from the off, although Paul Coutts’ speculative drive was deflected away from goal. It looked already as if United had regained their control and confidence further up the pitch, epitomised when Duffy jinked inside from the left only to drive narrowly over, and Jack O’Connell was unfortunate not to level as his header from John Fleck’s corner dropped inches wide of an upright.
Sharp and Coutts both had chances to level but too many opportunities were being passed off and it was to prove costly as Fleetwood doubled their lead 24 minutes from time. Ethan Ebanks-Landell was punished for hesitant defending as he waited for the ball to drop before heading back to Moore, but Cole nicked in front of the onrushing keeper to lob the ball into the far corner. It was met with further boos from the Lane as the atmosphere became toxic.
United kept pressing through Duffy and Lavery as they desperately searched for a break, but as fans filed for an early exit it was clear that the Blades are left with some improvement to do. The second-half of the season is now firmly underway, with Bolton and Scunthorpe, two sides who are eyeing the automatic promotion places, set to visit in February.
Sheffield United: Moore; O’Connell, Basham (Scougall, 46’) Ebanks-Landell; Freeman, Fleck, Coutts, Lafferty (Done, 89’); Duffy; McNulty (Lavery, 46’), Sharp (C). Subs not used: Ramsdale (GK), Wright, Riley, Wilson.
Fleetwood Town: Cairns; McLaughlin (C), Eastham, Bolger, Davies, Bell; Dempsey, Grant, Schwabi (Glendon, 76’); Cole (Ball, 70’), Burns (Hunter, 62’). Subs not used: Neal (GK), Davis, Long, Maguire.
Referee: Robert Jones
Bookings: Sheffield United: None
Fleetwood Town: Markus Schwabi (24’, late foul), Devante Cole (66’, unsportsmanlike conduct)
Goals: Sheffield United: None
Fleetwood Town: Conor McLaughlin (20’), Devante Cole (66’)
HT Score: 0-1
FT Score: 0-2
Man of the Match: Cian Bolger