8 July 2020: another remarkable chapter added to this incredible Sheffield United story. Just when it looked as though Bramall Lane was set to host its first goalless draw since November 2018, centre-back John Egan stepped up with a stooping header from Ollie Norwood’s corner which provided a knock-out blow to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
It remains to be seen where in the table will earn qualification for European football next season – eighth place could even be enough for a Europa League spot depending on the outcome of Manchester City’s appeal against their ban from European competitions. After this victory, United’s challenge rolls on; with four games left of their first season back in the Premier League, they sit seventh and now just one point behind opponents Wolves.
Much had been made of Wolves’ impressive record towards the tail end of matches this season, yet it was the hosts who grew in strength and belief as this one went on. Their visitors only mustered one shot on target, and the Blades can be almost as thrilled with their defensive work to contain a much admired front three of Diogo Jota, Raúl Jiménez and Adama Traoré as the potentially enormous value of this win.
Jack O’Connell was making his first start since the Premier League’s restart having recovered from a training injury, and whilst Chris Wilder has been right to praise the efforts of his deputy Jack Robinson for the manner in which he has filled in, O’Connell once again highlighted his influence within this team.
Most of the Blades’ best work came down the left flank, where they were able to exploit the Liverpudlian’s quality on the ball, sound delivery and ability to recover quickly upon losing possession. He is indispensable to how United play, and returned to the back three as if he hadn’t been away. Oli McBurnie headed the first chance of the match straight at Rui Patrício from O’Connell’s delivery, whilst at the other end he teamed up with left wing-back Enda Stevens and midfielder Ben Osborn to limit the threat posed by the skillful and powerful Traoré.
The Barcelona youth graduate’s stock has risen perhaps more than any other Premier League player this term, but on the whole the home side limited his threat superbly, and he was withdrawn with 11 minutes remaining in favour of an added central midfielder in the form of Leander Dendoncker. Traoré was able to beat Stevens and O’Connell to deliver a cross which saw Jota’s header easily claimed by Dean Henderson in the first half, but Wilder will be delighted with how his side dealt with him – especially since he had highlighted his quality pre-match.
The Blades boss also pointed out Wolves’ potency on the counter-attack, but his team generally retained the ball well to nullify that threat. On the rare occasions where Jota found himself with room to run at the back-line in the first half and Traoré likewise in the second half, O’Connell and Stevens picked up the only two bookings of the game for their attempts to halt the respective breaks.
Long-range specialist Rúben Neves struck the top of the crossbar from the resulting free-kick when Jota was brought down, but that was as close as this impressive Wolves side came to breaking the deadlock.
Nuno Espírito Santo’s men have thrilled the Premier League since returning after a seven-year absence last season. They remain in a strong position for European qualification for the second campaign running, but this result surely puts paid to their hopes of gatecrashing the top four.
This wet July evening belonged to the Blades. The returning captain Billy Sharp was denied by fine margins either side of half-time: firstly Rui Patrício did well to get there just in time and prevent him capitalising on Willy Boly’s poor back-pass, and then he had strayed offside prior to finding the net from Stevens’ fine ball. He and substitute Lys Mousset also narrowly failed to connect with a terrific low cross from Stevens after the restart.
Sharp was replaced by Richairo Zivkovic shortly after the second half drinks break. This was his home debut having had limited opportunities since arriving on loan from Chinese second tier outfit Changchun Yatai in January. However he certainly made his impact on this one. Zivkovic had already clipped a decent ball into the box from the left which George Baldock was disappointed to head wide having caught Jonny Otto napping, before deep into added time his hopeful shot caused pinball in the Wolves penalty area, with Rui Patrício opting to divert for a corner an Osborn effort which may have been heading wide.
From the resulting corner, Norwood’s delivery was on the money for Egan to power his header into the net at the Kop end and follow up his late equaliser at Burnley on Sunday. Wilder sprinted off down the touchline; those in red and white on the pitch were delirious. These were perhaps the most ecstatic scenes we have seen in the era of behind closed doors Premier League football. The only disappointment was that 30,000 Unitedites couldn’t be present to share in the moment.
Egan 90+3 felt like one of those that could go down in history – and the noise after this goal may even have topped any other on the decibel scale during this astonishing Wilder-led four-year journey. Afterwards, the manager went as far as to call the performance ‘one of the biggest since I’ve been here’. These Blades players have succeeded by remaining grounded and taking things one game at a time; they will continue to do so, but they are now potentially four games away from giving this fairytale the ending it deserves.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Basham, Egan, O’Connell; Baldock, Berge, Norwood, Osborn, Stevens; Sharp (C) (Zivkovic 71’), McBurnie (Mousset 49’). Subs not used: Moore, Lundstram, Jagielka, K. Freeman, J. Robinson, Rodwell.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Rui Patrício; Boly, Coady (C), Saïss; Doherty, João Moutinho, Neves, Jonny; Traoré (Dendoncker 79’), Jiménez, Jota. Subs not used: Ruddy, Jordão, Podence, Gibbs-White, Vinagre, Campana, Kilman, Buur.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Bookings: Sheffield United: O’Connell (30’), Stevens (63’)
Wolverhampton Wanderers: None
Sent off: Sheffield United: None
Wolverhampton Wanderers: None
Scorers: Sheffield United: John Egan (90+3’)
Wolverhampton Wanderers: None
HT score: 0-0
FT score: 1-0
Man of the Match: Jack O’Connell (Sheffield United)