A promise made prior to kick-off at Bramall Lane. Whatever the result, it would be wrong to be disappointed with Charlton Athletic. Irrational to feel anger at the Addicks for failing to beat League One’s runaway leaders.
But as Sheffield United celebrated their victory, embracing and acknowledging their delighted supporters now fully expecting a return to the second tier, it was difficult not to feel a touch of disappointment.
Not disappointment that translates into anger. Far from it. This 2-1 defeat was not an embarrassment for Karl Robinson’s side, and the effort of each of his men could not be questioned.
It disappointment that translates into frustration. For the Addicks, in the game’s opening moments, were dominant. And even when the Blades showed their true quality, pushing Charlton onto the back foot and constantly making the visitors squirm as they persistently threatened an uncomfortable defensive line, positive positions were taken up and chances created.
It disappointment that, with intensity maintained, greater resolve, and more intelligent decision making in the final third, the Addicks may have taken something away with them from South Yorkshire. A chance they might have punished a United side whose wastefulness in front of goal meant they could never quite kill the game off.
A United side who, despite sitting comfortably at the top of the division, began the game without composure. Ricky Holmes’ splendid 3rd-minute free-kick, flighted over the wall and beyond the fingertips of Simon Moore, the catalyst for a spell where the ignorant neutral might have thought the league leaders were in purple. Tony Watt clipping the bar, Ezri Konsa forcing a good save out of the home goalkeeper, and the Blades barely managing a touch in the opposition half as the Addicks pressed with unrelenting intensity.
Charlton in such a state of control that United’s 14th-minute equaliser not only came against the run of play, but was their first meaningful foray forward. The faintest of touches allowing Jack O’Connell to glance home Mark Duffy’s wicked delivery from the right. A cruel blow for the Addicks.
It from there that pattern of the game changed. Robinson’s men still making threatening moves forward, but United dictating. The final ten minutes of the first-half foreshadowing the Blades gaining an advantage, and there little surprise when Daniel Lafferty, having seen an initial header parried, pounced to rifle his side in front three minutes into the second period.
That advantage being doubled always looked likely, as Chris Wilder’s side continued to be the game’s dominant attacking force, but the Blades were wasteful. The chance of an equaliser still there for Robinson’s men, who had the determination with which to break into the opposition’s half with regularity despite being penned into their own. Konsa missed, Holmes wayward, Tony Watt running into dead ends from decent positions.
But there not enough. Neither enough potency from the Blades to seal their win, nor Charlton to make the most of the chance they were effectively being given by United’s failure to find a third. As full-time approached, the Addicks were a spent force, with neither the quality nor energy to break down a defence that stood firm.
The hosts celebrating with all the delight you would expect of a side closing in on a league title, but you sense a degree of relief made that joy more emphatic. They had been pushed. They had not waltzed to victory.
And, as such, there certainly no shame in either the performance or result. But you were left replaying moments of frustration in your mind. Moments that suggested the Addicks, with a touch more quality, might have been able to force the unlikeliest of results.
Not even an anticipation that United would need to work for their win prior to kick-off, and that despite Charlton arriving at Bramall Lane on the back of a 45-mintue spell against Bradford City in midweek that was as good a performance as any during this campaign. The champions elect surely too good for Robinson’s indifferent side.
An increase in confidence not necessarily gained by the XI that had picked, with the exclusion of Johnnie Jackson, who seemed the perfect character for this sort of fixture, a particular disappointment. Konsa, having signed a new contract on Friday, replacing the skipper in the centre, Nathan Byrne in for the injured Lewis Page, and a first start since recovering from injury for Jake Forster-Caskey as Andrew Crofts dropped to bench.
An increase in confidence, however, offered by Charlton’s start to a fixture in which the expectation was they would be forced onto the backfoot. The Addicks playing with the same intensity seen at The Valley on Tuesday night, forcing themselves into the final third, and asking questions of United’s defence. Forster-Caskey seeing an effort blocked behind, before the midfielder was hauled down on the edge of the opposition’s box.
A scorer of several free-kicks against Sheffield clubs sat on the bench. You would have wanted Jackson standing over this set-piece. But there no complaints with Holmes, converting from a deal ball twice in recent weeks, shaping to shoot.
And there certainly no complaints as the winger whipped his effort into the top corner of United’s goal. A moment required to make sure their eyes were not deceiving them, before the energy involved in Charlton’s celebrations reaffirmed the unlikely nature of this lead. A spectacular goal, creating spectacular joy.
But within that joy was caution. The visiting supporters not naïve enough to believe this meant the game was won. Knowledge that they would be punished if they sat deep for the remaining 87 minutes.
So that the Addicks continued to attack, and continued to attack with real threat and intensity, provided as much pleasure as the goal itself. Corners forced, something of a scramble in United’s box, and Watt ultimately hooking an effort back over his head and against the bar. Charlton fans with hands on heads, but no enjoyment taken away from this opening.
In contrast to the home supporters, as groans and grumbles began with Konsa being allowed to shoot from the edge of the box. Moore saving with relative ease, but the Addicks were cutting through United with relative ease. The discontent growing among the Bramall Lane crowd as Billy Sharp miscontrolled a pass out of play; this not the performance of champions.
Pleasure to be taken in just how much Robinson’s men were making the hosts struggle, as these groans reaffirmed Charlton’s dominance. A real crushing disappointment, therefore, when the Bramall Lane crowd rose in celebration at the conclusion of their side’s first attack of the afternoon.
Duffy’s ball from the right marvellous, but several red and white shirts were without company, and Declan Rudd was left in no man’s land. The delivery might have curled in without O’Connell’s touch, but the defender made sure. A faint nod, sending relief through the home stands and delivering a cruel blow to those who sat in the away end.
The game would now surely revert to what was expected. And there no doubt that the Blades immediately gained confidence. A fantastic tackle from Patrick Bauer required to prevent Paul Coutts getting a clear run on goal, searching balls down either wing finding their targets, and Lafferty should have done better after the ball fell to him on the edge of Charlton’s box.
But the Addicks were not yet willing to accept their position as whipping boys. A first effort from Lee Novak tame, but a second after being teed up perfectly by Forster-Caskey required a crucial block from Chris Basham’s head to prevent it being goal bound. Both of the forward’s efforts more threatening than what followed another run forward by Holmes, as he flashed horrible off-target.
Alas, there no denying the Blades were growing into the game with every moment, and they could feel hard done by not have been given a penalty just before the half hour. John Fleck receiving the forearm of Nathan Byrne, enduring a torrid afternoon, in his back as a cross came into the box. The home crowd enraged, and with good reason.
Outraged that would have no doubt increased had Watt, waltzing into the box in the fashion the Scot’s capable, not seen his driven strike tipped behind. The Blades dictating, but Charlton’s efforts making this an even contest.
Or at least that was the case until the final ten minutes of the half approached, as United’s pressure made the visiting supporters count down the seconds until half-time. Sharp, getting into forward positions but so far frustrated, forcing a save out of Rudd before breaking free and sending a ball across the face of goal that, somehow, no one in red and white could connect with.
A 15-minute chance to breathe not gained without three further moments of concern. Bauer almost diverting a cross from the right into his own net, Novak the unlikely figure that provided a crucial block to deny Ethan Ebanks-Landell, and the same United man getting away from his marker and diverting the following corner just over the bar.
Relief for the Addicks that the half-time whistle was soon to blow, with them largely clinging on in the half’s final moments, but no denying they warranted praise as they left the field. Even once the intensity of their opening spell had died down, they had held their own.
But those United openings needed to act as a warning. A warning that they would be placed under a similar level of pressure in the second period, and needed to provide a greater deal of resilience. Not much resilience on show as Fleck’s early corner was headed off-target by Sharp without a Charlton challenge.
And very little resilience at all as the Addicks had no answer to a brutal Blades break. A United man sent free down the right, his cross picking out an unmarked Lafferty at the back post, who looked certain to score. And though Rudd did superbly to keep out the header, the goalkeeper could not cling on, and the wide man followed up to give his side the advantage.
Charlton responding as Holmes won a corner, with Bauer glanced wide, but the confidence of those in the away end crushed. The genuine hope that the opening period had offered now crushed. The chances of getting back into this game against the champions-elect highly unlikely.
An unlikeness not helped by the Addicks, in those rare moments where they were not desperately defending against United attacks, lacking composure in front of goal. It bad enough when the ball fell to Holmes at the back post, and the winger volleyed in the general direction of the corner flag, but Konsa’s tame poke towards goal was truly gutting. The youngster meeting a cross barely a few yards from goal, and a proper connection would have turned the ball home, but Moore was able to claim his weak stab.
A deflected Forster-Caskey effort well held by Moore and Holmes sent another volley horribly off-target either side of Kieron Freeman dragging an effort wide of goal for the hosts, but the Blades pressure was building.
A free header for O’Connell from a United free-kick, but the defender somehow unable to direct the delivery goalwards, before substitute Samir Carruthers broke free of Charlton’s defence and fired with some velocity into the side netting. Wilder’s side without the finishing touch to their excellent forward moves, but still seemingly the most likely to score the game’s next goal as Robinson’s men looked increasingly tame and drained.
But there was undoubtedly frustration for both sides as they entered their respective final thirds. Watt the leader of the pack for Charlton, but he couldn’t help himself but run into dead ends, while a rather pathetic Sharp dive as he raced for a loose ball with Rudd was not what was required for the hosts to seal victory.
That, at least, meaning that an opportunity to steal a point remained open for the Addicks, but this final 14 minutes of the game was in complete contrast to their first 14. They had not given up, still fighting as much as they possibly could, but there was no longer the energy to properly test a strong United defence. Too slow, too lethargic in possession, and attacks being stopped before they had started.
There still, however, that bite in the Blades’ move forwards. A strong save from Rudd required to deny Lafferty, before Jay O’Shea was guilty of clearing the crossbar after receiving the ball in a glorious position after the Addicks were cut apart down the left. Less than five minutes to play, and attention turning to maintaining their advantage for the Blades.
Defending single-goal leads so often a tale of horror for the Addicks, but certainly not one for United. Confidently defending as this tired group of Charlton bodies forced themselves forward without the required result. The game ending with the Blades holding onto possession with strength, and Robinson’s men looking the weak and spent force they were.
But that isn’t to say the Addicks were worthy of criticism as they cautiously approached the away end, in some contrast to the unrelenting fist-umping occurring among those in red and white. Enough awareness in an away end, an away end that had voiced frustration throughout the second period, to know their players had fought hard for much of the game, and warranted appreciation. Applause for those disappointed faces, who had far from embarrassed themselves at the league’s leaders.
Easy to understand why disappointment was expressed in their faces, and frustration had been expressed at times by the visiting supporters.
The players will have felt that their efforts, hardworking and determined for much of the game, were worthy of more. Never getting near to matching the intensity on show prior to United’s equaliser, but still fighting and attempting to compete. Still creating chances.
Those in the away end appreciating the hardworking efforts of their side, and also finding frustration in the chances not taken, but so too was there a disappointment that that opening spell could not be repeated at any stage throughout the remainder of the contest.
Not for the want of trying, it can fairly be suggested. The midfield battling against opponents of greater quality, Holmes running himself into ground once again, and Watt let down by his own dubious decision making. Those chances, not least Konsa’s glorious opportunity to restore parity, the consequence.
But so too did the Addicks, once losing that early intensity, bring pressure upon themselves. Sitting too deep, the backline – the dreadful Byrne in particular – increasingly lacking composure, and both confidence and quality draining from Charlton’s attacking efforts as the latter stages of the second half were entered. Robinson’s reluctance to utilise pacey, attacking options that sat on the bench until Jordan Botaka’s 80th minute introduction difficult to fully understand.
However, given the class and quality of the opposition, who had the Addicks penned in their own half for much of the second period but lacked a real end product that many of their threatening attacks warranted, it’s a defeat that needs to be accepted with a certain amount of grace. We had a very good go against strong opposition, were ultimately beaten by the better team, and it not a result that requires recrimination.
Nonetheless, you couldn’t help but look around Bramall Lane and be reminded of Charlton’s failure this season. A full Bramall Lane, creating incredible celebratory scenes come full-time, as we stumble towards a bottom-half finish with one eye still on the bottom four.
Port Vale, occupying the final relegation zone, six points behind us with three games in hand. They’ll play twice before we play again, and the scene at the bottom of the division may be a little uncomfortable when we travel to Peterborough. Enough quality in the squad, enough teams between us and the bottom four, and enough winnable games on the horizon to mean we shouldn’t get sucked into any relegation battle, but still a need to keep half an eye on what’s occurring down there.
But that period without a game may well be exactly what we need. Many of those Charlton bodies quite obviously exhausted at full-time, and that’s exhaustion that has been shown in the closing periods of many games over the previous few weeks. A freshened group of Addicks with the newly discovered fight and determination should do more than enough to comfortable guide themselves away from the minute threat of relegation that still exists.
And it remains, after those many weeks without energy or effort shown, a source of solace that some fight has been discovered. Certainly enough fight shown at Bramall Lane to come away without feelings anger or embarrassment. Sheffield United had to battle for victory, and I asked for no more than that.