An impressive start to the season with excellent patient, passing football sadly came to nought, says Deadbat
But his first interviews were positive and he spoke very well, seeming unfazed by the negative reaction from many supporters.
Some players moved on (Henderson, Yeates and numerous loanees went back) but as the season started, we had managed to retain Stephen Quinn, Matt Lowton, Nick Montgomery and Lee Williamson. Ched Evans was out injured but there was speculation about a possible court case for an alleged rape in the summer. There were a sprinkling of new signings, with Jean-Francois Lescinel from Swindon, Chris Porter from Derby and Ryan Flynn, the only cash signing, from Falkirk.
United also signed Wolves winger Nathaniel Mendez-Laing on loan, and former Burnley man Kevin McDonald was also on trial and was soon to join the squad.
The season began with a big United following of nearly 4,000 at Boundary Park, and a solid performance saw them get off to winning start with a first goal for the impressive Harry Maguire and a tidy finish by Richard Cresswell. The victory was well deserved with Quinn looking a stand-out player.
After a league cup win on penalties at Hartlepool, there were two wins the following week in different circumstances. Brentford were beaten with ease thanks to Jordan Slew and Cresswell again. Kevin McDonald made his debut and showed the poise and passing that United had been crying out for in recent seasons. The midweek game against Walsall was not as straight forward though, and some erratic keeping by Steve Simonsen contributed to the Blades being 2-0 behind. A stirring fightback, led by substitute Williamson, enabled United to come back and win the game 3-2, with Cresswell scoring the winner from the penalty spot.
United dropped their first points the following Saturday in a draw at Tranmere after Nick Montgomery’s out of character 30-yard finish. United went out of the cup at Everton but were soon back to winning ways with another hard-fought win, at Yeovil, Chris Porter scoring his first goal. At the end of the month Jordan Slew, or rather his agent, decided he would be better served playing academy/reserve football at Blackburn than league football at the Lane, and they both took their pieces of silver to infuriate Wilson. In a less-controversial departure, Daniel Bogdanovic left for Blackpool but Wilson opted not to bring in any further players. The month ended with some of the back-ups playing in a come-back win at Burton in the opening round of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
United’s impressive start to the season continued with the excellent patient, passing football that had surprised and delighted many fans. A 4-0 thumping of Bury, with cameos from David McAllister and Erik Tonne took United to joint top, and was followed by a 1-1 draw at Scunthorpe in which Evans returned to earn a point against the Iron, so long United’s bogey team. The first defeat came in strange circumstances, as long-time unbeaten Huddersfield overpowered United in a clinical spell of three goals in quick succession at the Kop end in a game that was relatively even for the most part. The following game United bounced back by thumping Colchester, with Evans on target again but then somehow contrived to lose after battering bottom side Wycombe for much of the game without being able to take any of the many chances created. Still, the football for the most part was excellent, with Maguire and Lowton very good, and players who had been so criticised the previous season, Neill Collins and Michael Doyle, seemingly galvanised by Wilson’s style of football.
The defeat at Adams Parks was followed by another, as the Blades lost again at home, this time to league leaders Charlton, who also clinically took their chances in another close contest. The good start to the season had been undermined somewhat by three defeats in four games that left United back in sixth place. After they undeservedly beat Rotherham to move on in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, it was time for the first derby of the season, with the visit of Sheffield Wednesday.
In front of a 28,000 crowd, United scored twice in the first half, thanks to Quinn and Evans and, with just around 10 minutes to go, it seemed as if the honours were going to the hosts. However, two late goals aided by poor goalkeeping by Simonsen gave Wednesday an unlikely draw and left Blades fans gutted.
Undeterred, United scored four goals at Preston with new loan-signings Billy Clarke and Matt Phillips highly influential, and Lee Williamson scoring a brace. But they were unable to build on this, as another goalkeeping mistake by Simonsen gave Leyton Orient a stoppage-time draw a week later. United brought in young George Long and he performed creditably in a 2-1 win against a very decent MK Dons side. The following Saturday though, Long and many others had a nightmare, as United let in 4 goals against struggling Exeter City in a game that ended 4-4.
United’s sticky spell continued with a defeat at Stevenage (with Simonsen back in goal), and a poor display going out of the JP Trophy on penalties to Bradford. This loss and its manner, however, seemed to galvanise the team. Wilson’s words, perhaps, had an effect, and United then went on their best run of the season. They beat Oxford in the FA Cup and then Carlisle, through Evans, in the league at the Lane. They then scored late, thanks to Evans again, at the B2Net to beat neighbours Chesterfield.
The run continued with another cup win, this time against Torquay in a game that was played in difficult circumstances after the untimely passing of former manager Gary Speed. United continued their impressive form, beating Rochdale comfortably, with Evans scoring another brace, and then winning well at Bournemouth with two own goals, both made by Evans, giving the Blades fans plenty of Christmas cheer. In the two games immediately after Christmas, United beat Notts County in front of the cameras and then saw off Hartlepool with another powerful performance.
The first defeat for eight games came at Carlisle, as United lost out by the odd goal in a five-goal thriller despite two more goals by the on-fire Evans. Another cup win came the following Saturday against non-league Salisbury to move into round four. The great home form, in terms of goals scored, continued: United put four past Yeovil and moved ahead of Wednesday into second place. The Blades took a huge following to Bury: around 4,000 fans watched from three sides of the ground as the team overran the Shakers.
With another defeat for Wednesday (by Charlton), United now were in an excellent position, though the month ended with two defeats. A decent performance at leaders Charlton went unrewarded, United losing out to a free-kick, before they were well beaten by Birmingham at the Lane to go out of the FA Cup.
The Blades got back to winning ways, easily dispatching struggling Wycombe before they put in perhaps their best performance of the season in the win at Huddersfield, with the now ever-reliable Neill Collins scoring the winner, and the previously much-maligned Simonsen outstanding. Huddersfield surprisingly dispensed with their manager Lee Clark the next day.
A horrible Preston outfit failed to stop the United juggernaut, as Evans once again scored a crucial goal in another Blades victory. The following week, with a five-point gap opened up on Wednesday, United were unable to confirm their superiority, going down by a single goal in the derby at Hillsborough. Days later, as United beat Scunthorpe in a pretty poor performance, Wednesday sacked their manager, Gary Megson, and soon replaced him with Dave Jones. It was seen at the time as an odd move: despite Megson’s unpopularity, he had got the Owls right in the promotion mix and they had just beaten the Blades. Little did we know at that time what impact this move would have on both clubs.
The next few games were to perhaps become the ones that cost United promotion. Leading 2-0 and coasting against Oldham, Michael Doyle hit the post and numerous other chances went begging. The game seemed as good as over, but an own goal by Cresswell and then a sending-off for Lowton turned the game. Oldham levelled and then, at the death, Maguire committed a professional foul and ex-Wednesday man Kuqi won it from the spot.
United had also lost Francois with a serious injury and now had to play at Walsall with three of the back four missing. They lost, with debutants Hill and Egan unable to stop the struggling Saddlers. Suddenly, the gap was down to one point. United were able to regroup, with suspended players returning, and won 2-0 at Brentford, with Evans continuing to score freely. They now had newcomers Hoskins and O’Halloran in on loan to boost the attacking prospects, especially with the Evans court case looming. A decent point at Colchester followed, Hoskins on target.
A poor performance against Tranmere resulted in just a point, but United ended a packed month of games by smashing five goals at Meadow Lane and then hitting another four against Chesterfield to maintain a slim advantage over Wednesday who had now hit a rich vein of form. It did not help that United had to keep playing after Wednesday due to the way the fixtures had fallen. United had to beat Hartlepool, after Wednesday had won a lunch-time game, with a late Evans penalty the difference.
United were now within touching distance of promotion but the Owls were breathing right down their necks. They managed to see off Bournemouth with a nervy ending to the game. Then, after Wednesday beat Oldham on Easter Monday, United had to again respond, at Rochdale, and did so in emphatically, hitting another five goals; their remarkable scoring record made them the highest-scoring side in the country.
In the same week, the Ched Evans court case began, but he was free to return and wrap up a victory against Orient at the Lane, while Wednesday could only draw. United now needed only five points to be certain of promotion, in the final three games. On the following Friday, though, United fans were shocked as Evans was sentenced to five years in jail for rape. The decision seemed puzzling to many, considering the evidence in the media and that the other player involved, Clayton McDonald, was acquitted.
Fans forums buzzed and the fallout was not pretty in terms of comments made about the victim, and it seemed many people’s football allegiances gave them a ridiculous stance on proceedings, with fans on both side of the city deciding to be judge and jury.
Though there was nothing United could do, the shock of the conviction seemed to carry over to the following day, as United lost at MK Dons despite taking 6,000 fans. A late winner with virtually the last kick of stoppage-time meant that Wednesday now within a point.
The following week, after Wednesday won again, United went 2-0 behind at home in front of an expectant full house, and only a late fightback pinched a point against Stevenage. The advantage was gone and Wednesday had to merely win their last game to seal promotion, against relegated Wycombe.
United went to Exeter with another big following but the news from S6 was not good - the Owls were up. Beattie, stupidly, got himself sent off, as United drew and once again had to go through the play-offs.
The Evans verdict had hit the side hard; failure to win any of the last three games and Wednesday winning all three meant the unthinkable had happened.
As Wednesday held a civic reception, United had to traipse down to Stevenage and do it all again. A creditable 0-0 draw in the first leg was followed by an equally dour game in the second, with United missing both Cresswell and then McDonald through injury. However, United did just about enough to win and a late Porter header sent the Blades to Wembley.
In United’s fourth play-off final, against Huddersfield, McDonald was ruled out and, with striking options severely limited, the Blades opted to play it tight and field a 4-5-1 formation again. In front of around 30,000 fans who had spent a fortune to get there, it was another limp Wembley performance in the now-traditional searing heat. Despite an outstanding performance from Quinn, Maguire and even Simonsen, the Blades never really looked like scoring and were fortunate to get to penalties.
Predictably, United lost both tosses and the kicks were taken in front of the Town fans. After Huddersfield missed their first three spot-kicks, it seemed that United could end their play-off hoodoo. But key misses by Lowton and Taylor put paid to that, and the Blades, kicking second, were left playing catch-up. They kept hanging in through sudden death until it came to the keepers and, as Simonsen stepped up, there was little confidence that he would score and so it proved.
United accumulated 90 points and scored 92 goals. It should have been enough. The side played some lovely football at times, a refreshing change from recent seasons. Yes, there were some truly poor opponents, and maybe when it mattered United could not do it (two wins from 10 against the top five) but nobody can argue they had not enjoyed the season and felt energised by watching the Blades again. Sadly it was all for nought.
With rumours of departures of Lowton, Maguire and Quinn, and uncertain futures for out-of-contract players McDonald and Williamson, the future is very uncertain. The club is losing money and may have to face up to more years of cost cutting and further losses to the playing staff. But United must still be attractive to most players outside the top two divisions, so if we can pick up some of these better players and keep the nucleus of the side there is no reason why we cannot be around the top six at least next year.
If we do lose some of the aforementioned and new recruits are of the calibre of Flynn and Porter, we are in danger of several years of mediocrity in this division.