Latics defeat shows Adkins’ Blades still have work to do

Billy Sharp, Che Adams and Jose Baxter
Billy Sharp, Che Adams and Jose Baxter

It was far from their most disastrous performance of the season but, in the context of Sheffield United’s faltering promotion push from League One this term, it could prove to be one of the most catastrophic results.

United’s 2-0 defeat at home to Wigan on Saturday left them tenth in the table - they later dropped to 11th, following Barnsley’s win over Bury - and five points behind sixth-placed Millwall.

Sheffield United's Jay McEveley dejected at full time

Sheffield United's Jay McEveley dejected at full time

South Yorkshire rivals Barnsley, who were 2/1 at the bookies on Boxing Day to be relegated, are now above them and the 14-point gap between them and Walsall, in second, has led boss Nigel Adkins to call time on their hunt for automatic promotion.

The top six, Adkins admits, is now their only hope of escaping the third tier and if they do make it, many Blades fans will be hoping Saturday’s opponents Wigan are already celebrating promotion.

The division’s two heavyweights spent much of this battle at Bramall Lane sizing each other up, but the visitors just had that extra gear thanks to the pace and power of Yanic Wildschut and debutant Everton loanee Conor McAleney.

“It was tough to take,” said United’s captain, Jay McEveley.

“We said, coming into this game, that it was a really big one for us. They had the better of the ball in the first half, but we dealt with their threats quite well and came on a little in the second.

“We started well and then gave the penalty away, which was such a soft way to go behind.

“We’re gutted about that; it put us on the back foot. Yes, we had some chances but they’re a good team.”

Save for Billy Sharp testing Jussi Jääskeläinen, in the Wigan goal, with a stinging shot and Jose Baxter chipping just wide, McEveley had United’s best chance of the game when his marauding run ended with a shot, which flashed just wide of the far post.

“It’s narrow margins, isn’t it?” the defender added.

“I found myself in some space and had a good touch into the box... and I thought ‘just hit it across the goalkeeper’, but it went just narrowly wide.

“If that goes in, it’s maybe a different game but we don’t deal in ifs, buts and maybes.

“We deal in facts. We lost the game 2-0, and the dressing room is a very down place after the game.”

This wasn’t quite 4-0 on the opening day at Gillingham, or 4-2 at home to Shrewsbury on a disastrous midweek night, but could be a crossroads in United’s season with 17 games to go.

United bounced back well from both those defeats - winning five league games in a row after Gillingham, and tasting victory in four of five outings after Shrewsbury - and will hope to do likewise this weekend when they travel across the county to Doncaster Rovers.

Adkins’ team selection on Saturday suggested an emphasis on making United solid, rather than spectacular; Chris Basham, Conor Sammon and, in particular, Paul Coutts all struggled, while Matt Done, Che Adams and Jamal Campbell-Ryce were all introduced from the bench in an attempt to create an attacking spark.

Indeed, United ended the game with Adams, Billy Sharp, Jose Baxter, Campbell-Ryce and Done on the field; a clear shift in strategy over the space of 90 minutes. Will Adkins stick or twist for United’s derby in Doncaster?

His approach at the Keepmoat could say a great deal about the rest of United’s season - and about their hopes of finally escaping League One.