Sheffield United’s unbeaten run came to a controversial end at the Riverside as Jack O’Connell had a goal harshly disallowed deep into injury time.
Middlesbrough appeared to have surrendered their slender lead with around 90 seconds remaining when defender turned Mark Duffy’s free-kick past Darren Randolph and into the back of the net.
But the assistant referee incorrectly ruled Chris Basham had strayed into an offside position when the set-piece was taken, meaning Rudy Gestede’s first-half effort was enough to see the hosts’ home and condemn United to their first defeat since January.
There were moments when, unless they were in any doubt, today’s contest served to remind the visitors what it takes to complete at the top end of the Championship. Middlesbrough, who will surely mount a serious challenge for a top two finish after lavishing around £40m on players this summer alone, were inventive going forward and rock solid at the back. United, however, competed well and posed a few questions of their own with Paul Coutts nearly snatching an equaliser just past the hour.
Nevertheless, despite their vastly superior financial resources, Middlesbrough required a helping hand to get the job done. Patrick Bamford’s chip into the area was clever but should have been dealt with. Unfortunately, it was not and Gestede, the former Aston Villa striker, took full advantage to turn the ball home.
United’s coaching staff will not enjoy watching re-runs of the incident. But, when the disappointment subsides, they should take heart from the fact Garry Monk’s men were unable to fashion more chances themselves.
Indeed, if Leon Clarke had done better with a seventh minute opening or the assistant referee had not forgotten the offside law, United would surely have secured a draw.
Despite acknowledging Middlesbrough’s spending power beforehand, Wilder had reminded that football matches are won on the pitch, not the balance sheet, before making the journey north. Certainly the thought of locking horns with the promotion favourites did not appear to have intimidated his players during a lively first-half. Indeed, had Clarke not attempted to tee-up his shot inside the penalty area after being released by Samir Carruthers and Kieron Freeman, United would have taken an early lead. John Fleck also went close - bursting through Middlesbrough’s defence before seeing the ball touched away as he primed to shoot - but it was the hosts who took the lead after 20 minutes. Gestede kept his cool to head home after Chris Basham’s miscued clearance had left Jamal Blackman stranded. But the goal owed more to poor defending than it did attacking prowess. Only the width of a post prevented Gestede from scoring a second when he climbed highest to meet Cyrus Christie’s cross but, having survived a difficult period as the interval approached, United made a strong start after the break. The trouble was, with Middlesbrough’s rearguard dropping deeper and deeper to defend on the edge of Randolph’s area, it proved almost impossible to find the space to make some good spells of possession pay. It was no surprise, therefore, that United’s next opportunity came from distance. Clarke did well to lay the ball off after receiving it with his back to goal and Coutts, aware he was being closed down, unleashed a powerful first time effort which Randolph, scrambling towards his left hand post, did well to palm clear.
O’Connell looked to have finally broken Middlesbrough’s resistance when he pounced with only seconds remaining but the assistant referee wrecked their celebrations.
Middlesbrough: Randolph, Christie, Gibson, Fry, Friend, Howson, Clayton, Forshaw (Leadbitter 84), Bamford, Gestede (Baker 68), Assombalonga (Fletcher 79). Not used: Dimi, Fabio, Roberts,Traore.
Sheffield United: Blackman, O’Connell, Stearman, Basham, Freeman (Brooks 79), Stevens, Coutts, Fleck, Carruthers (Duffy 57), Sharp (Evans 68), Clarke. Not used: Eastwood, Lundstram, Wright, Lafferty.
Referee: Peter Bankes (Merseyside)