Only in the weeks ahead will we learn whether this was the start of something special for Sheffield United, or a faint flicker of hope that ultimately fizzles out. But perhaps we should have known that it would be here, against the most embarrassing opposition performance they will face all season, that the Blades’ long wait for a league victory would come to an end.
Three days on from a first win in all competitions, the home side had renewed vigour about the prospect of staging the greatest of all escapes. Newcastle, who have now scored just one goal in 10 hours, were the ideal opponents to claim that long-elusive league win at the 18th attempt. By full time, there were few who could argue with this result being the right one.
“We looked as though we had our identity back: that was us,” said Chris Wilder, the Sheffield United manager. “We can’t waste this chance, because we’ve been after a result like this for a long time.”How Sheffield United’s supporters have waited a long time to hear their manager say that.
However, while the manner of this victory was always going to matter little for the hosts when it finally arrived, it cannot be ignored from the perspective of their hapless opponents. Billy Sharp’s 100th league goal for his boyhood club was the least the Blades deserved, after over an hour of relentless pressure and dominance.
Newcastle were, to put it mildly, utterly uninspiring from start to finish. Setting up with a back five against the country’s lowest scorers always felt overly cautious. That tactical decision, and the accompanying performance, got what it deserved. The Newcastle manager, Steve Bruce, played down talk of the result increasing the pressure on his own position.
“You’re asking the wrong person about that,” he said. “But I’ll never walk away from a challenge. The first-half performance was as poor as we’ve played in a long time and it’s bitterly disappointing. We knew how big a game this was and we didn’t give ourselves a chance to counterattack or offer anything going forward.”
Callum Wilson cut a lonely, disconsolate figure up front. Ryan Fraser’s red card on the stroke of half-time pushed the visitors even further on to the back foot but that should not mask the fact they were comprehensively outplayed. Newcastle had not mustered a shot on target prior to Fraser’s foul on John Lundstram that saw the player dismissed.
There is no way of window-dressing this Newcastle performance. They allowed the only side in England’s top five divisions without a league win this season to press from minute one and, had it not been for Karl Darlow denying David McGoldrick or Lundstram missing a golden chance, they would have been behind long before Fraser was sent off for a second foul in three minutes.
When the goal came, it was long overdue. Jayden Bogle had earlier forced a save from Darlow, and McGoldrick again came close before Federico Fernández handled in the area –Sharp made no mistake with the penalty. The closest Newcastle came to an equaliser was when a mix-up between Bogle and Aaron Ramsdale almost saw the ball squirm in during the dying seconds.
It was Newcastle who gave Derby their one and only win of the season in 2007-08. That season, they finished 12th in the Premier League as the Rams went down with just that solitary scalp to their name. Time will tell whether Sheffield United do better than that but on this showing Newcastle look a long way off anything resembling a mid-table team.