James McAtee kick-starts Chris Wilder’s second coming at Sheffield United

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder celebrates their first goal, scored by James McAtee
Chris Wilder is back with a bang at Bramall Lane - Reuters/Lee Smith

James McAtee dropped his shoulder, shifted the ball onto his left and wrapped a low-socked leg around it.

Bramall Lane held its collective breath. It was a Matrix moment, one with the potential to change a season’s course.

Eventually, the far corner bulged; the Kop released a guttural roar; and Chris Wilder danced delightedly.

McAtee – a Manchester City loanee dubbed the “Salford Silva” by team-mates there – is perhaps emblematic of Sheffield United’s current short-termism.

But the same could be said about Wilder’s second coming and, when you are hanging onto a division by a thread from the moment it kicks off, the only real future is now.

Moments of individual McAtee brilliance may just give United a fighting chance of Premier League survival, and, really, that is all that matters.

“McAtee found a moment, a big moment, and it’s decided what was a tight game” Wilder said. “The word which is used quite often is ‘suffer’. The club has had to suffer this season. We all know what the narrative is – we’re not daft. It’s our job to try and change that, and it’s a big three points in changing that narrative.”

James McAtee of Sheffield United celebrates scoring the winning goal during the Premier League match between Sheffield United and Brentford FC at Bramall Lane on December 09, 2023 in Sheffield, England
James McAtee's left-footed strike was enough to ensure Sheffield United a vital three points - Getty Images/SportImage

As Wilder pointed out, United’s task remains gargantuan. They will finish the weekend bottom, and next face trips to both the erratic Chelsea and the brilliant Aston Villa. But home fixtures like this one against an out-of-form, understrength Brentford simply must bring three points.

True, an uncharacteristic defensive error – Ethan Pinnock cleared against Vitaly Janelt, allowing Gustavo Hamer to find McAtee – offered the decisive opening. But then again, it is also true that the Var officials’ decision not to at least send Stuart Attwell to review the first-half yellow card flashed at Frank Onyeka was a little baffling. High, late and a tad nasty is how the tackle could be described.

Fortunately, for once, video refereeing is not the main talking point. Because United deserved this victory, achieved courtesy of a newly distilled blend of vibes, hard graft and nostalgia.

They showed bravery, not just matching Brentford’s midfield triptych, but man-marking them.

They showed character, defending resolutely to earn Wes Foderingham a first clean sheet of the season.

They showed the ability to blank out a tetchy home crowd whose noise – at least pre-goal – was largely limited to groans at misplaced passes, at heavy touches.

A little more second-half composure from Anis Slimane and Cameron Archer would have made the final sodden minutes a little less anxious. Eventually, though, came whistle-based relief.

“Late on we really had to suffer,” Wilder said. “We were prepared to put our bodies on the line to keep the ball out of the net. Sometimes that is the most simplistic way of doing it.”

Wilder’s return is as much about his ability to motivate, to understand the fabric of a club, to unify a support base, as it is coaching.

And it was, as Annie’s Song swirled around the ground at full-time, already evident that togetherness will not be lacking.