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Sheffield United equalled the earliest relegation from the Premier League as their demotion was confirmed following Willian José’s first goal for Wolves and Paul Heckingbottom, the interim manager, called for clarity from the club’s owner.
This ninth defeat in 10 league games mean United depart for the Championship with six games remaining, as ignominiously in numerical terms as Huddersfield Town two years ago, Derby County in 2007-08 (and Ipswich Town in a 42-game season in 1994/95), after Willian José converted in his 12th league game for Wolves.
United fought to the end, and had the better chances of a low-quality game, but their year of misery since they were competing for a top-six place upon their return to the Premier League was compounded when Wolves broke to score just after Enda Stevens had had the clearest chance of the game. “That goal encapsulates our season,” Heckingbottom said. “We’ve been done by a sucker-punch when they’ve scored 20 seconds after our best chance.”
The former Barnsley manager, who has overseen five successive defeats since succeeding Chris Wilder, appealed for direction from the club’s owners 24 hours after the chairman stepped down.
Prince Musaad Bin Khalid Al Saud, the son-in-law of the club owner, Prince Abdullah bin Mosa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, had resigned for personal reasons on the eve of the game but it is not thought this makes any difference to the day-by-day running of the club.
“That’s what you want as a football club,” Heckingbottom said. “Direction needs to come from above then everything falls in line from that. Discussions are going on behind the scenes but clarity comes from above.
“We have six games left and we’re in control of how we present ourselves, on and off the pitch. It’s everyone’s careers at stake, personal pride. The effort’s there.”
Heckingbottom accepted that United should seek to follow Norwich City, promoted last night, and potentially Watford and Bournemouth in bouncing straight back from relegation. “That has to be the goal of the club,” he said.
Wolves’ win at Fulham eight nights previously had given them the breathing space to be considered no longer part of the relegation picture. With Pedro Neto joining Jonny Otto in need of knee surgery and Rúben Neves missing in Covid isolation, this lifting of pressure was timely.
In an even first half, Willy Boly was unlucky to see his deflected backheel headed against the underside of the crossbar by Oliver Norwood after Willian José chested the ball down after a corner.
At the other end, John Fleck, at the culmination of a fluent United buildup, dispatched a rising snorter of a shot just over the crossbar, but shortly before half-time came a pivotal moment when Wolves were fortunate not to be reduced to 10 men. Rayan Aït-Nouri and Rhian Brewster both went over the top of the ball as they challenged for a 50-50 but, while the former Liverpool striker was cautioned, replays suggested the Wolves left-back had trodden on his opponent’s ankle first.
The absence since November of Raúl Jiménez, their leading goalscorer but also their most pivotal attacker, with a fractured skull has highlighted an over-reliance on the Mexican and neither Fábio Silva, the £35m 18-year-old, nor Willian José, on loan from Real Sociedad, have convinced in his absence.
Willian José has impressed with his buildup play but had barely looked like scoring until last week. His disallowed header at Craven Cottage came after Daniel Podence’s shirt trim was adjudged beyond that of the last defender in the approach but, against the league’s bottom club, finally he had his goal.
It came following United’s best chance. Brewster got away down the right channel and pulled his cross back for Stevens to arrive and shoot goalwards but Nélson Semedo blocked before clearing intelligently to Podence. When Leander Dendoncker released Adama Traoré, the matchwinner in Wolves’ last game flew up the flank before crossing low for Willian José to clip in the only goal.
Stevens came closest to equalising in the 70th minute when he span away from Dendoncker on the right edge of the penalty area before sending in such a fierce shot that it was difficult to detect Rui Patrício’s superb fingertip save. But United’s fate had long since been set.