After a period of wonkiness and back-to-back defeats, even the wildest of Sky Blue fantasists will have struggled to predict the battering that was dished out to Sheffield United this weekend.
That was surreal.
And yet, journey back a few weeks when our performance levels were close to impeccable, we all claimed a result like this was imminent. Even Mark was adamant that a team was due a good spanking.
So, how did this happen?
Firstly, this wasn’t all our own doing. While we’ve navigated much of the season with a sense of superiority in our play, we’ve still endured tough games against hard-working opposition. It’s been a tricky season of full-on Championship fixtures, where you clearly have to earn the wins and rarely get handouts (…and even when you do earn them, they don’t always come).
We’ve looked classy, threatening, and capable of beating what’s been in front of us. January specifically was an odd month where we played incredibly well and somehow struggled to grab the wins that our style and dominance deserved.
Strangely, February offered the reverse: a bunch of positive results while the superiority and performance-level was lacking. While fun and very much welcomed, it always felt to me as though these kinds of wins were not necessarily going to continue in the long term, and the dwindling confidence (and lack of non-tired playing options) had certainly started to reveal itself in the last couple of games.
Yet, with our self-belief potentially at its lowest point this season, that only makes Saturday’s result even more unexpected.
Let’s be clear: Sheffield Utd imploded. Sure, we were relentless in our efforts, but we were also pretty off our margins for a large portion of the match. The passing was 70-80% accurate, regularly bobbling slightly behind the intended target or getting stuck under our feet at just the wrong time. And even with all these things appearing to go against us, we managed to stick four goals past a ridiculous excuse for a defence.
Please note: this isn’t me slagging off Sheffield Utd for the sake of it. I’m certain their fans will have watched that game and had absolutely no recognition of the second-half performance either. I still can’t quite fathom how they became so porous, so quickly.
The first half was a far closer affair, and actually a really intriguing contest as we tried to establish some sort of cohesion and control over what we were doing. Viktor had clearly eyed up his opponents early on, while Hamer is riding the crest of a particularly massive contract-signing (ego-boosting) wave. But things were a little “off”. Not hugely, but the margins and accuracy of our all-round play were looking wobbly, and when we went behind it had the firm scent of a season that was very quickly beginning to unravel.
The goal was preventable. We watched as multiple balls dropped throughout our defensive line, with very little focus or intuition that appeared capable of stopping them, before finally floating to the head of Berge at the far post who calmly dropped a header past Moore.
We were behind again and it was worryingly expected.
Amazingly Sheffield Utd were in no mood to secure that lead and offered an immediate reprise, with Michael Rose making up for the error that cost a goal against Luton by driving the very same ball over the head of the misplaced Blades defender and sending Gyokeres clean-through. Somewhat symbolic of our bobbly behaviour to that point, he sent a mildly-firm finish straight to the feet of Wes Foderingham, who – in his shock at the ball coming right towards him – was unable to react in time to prevent it glancing off his shins and into the net. It was a strong and very well-timed response, in spite of the lack of conviction in the finish.
Things soon stepped up as we realised we were up against a less-than-drilled opponent. Shape-wise, they were flimsy, and our lineup lent itself particularly well to exploiting that. Without realising it we’d started the game with something resembling our strongest set up; shape and dynamic-wise. Of course we were missing Dom Hyam, and there’s always the game-by-game toss up between Sheaf and Allen (depending on the opponent), but the balance provided by Maatsen and Dabo elevated our overall threat. The options were always available, and Hamer in particular found himself with regular space to stride into.
However, it was Jamie Allen who produced the first half’s most memorable bit of play. Firstly, demonstrating his well-disguised nippiness to blitz by his opponent on the break; then by interchanging gorgeously with O’Hare to offer up an open choice to roll the ball through to either Godden or Hamer. He correctly chose the better-placed Hamer – but it was once again a lack of conviction and purpose in his first touch that saw him widen the angle a smidge more than he’d like, and stretch for a fairly tame effort at goal. It was a clear chance, and one that a team not lacking the “edge” would have put away.
Heading into the break, I was comfortable with the score, reasonably excited by the opportunities, but also apprehensive given the shakiness in our passing and a feeling that we’d lose our nerve and forget what bits had served us well in the first half.
Thankfully that apprehension was misplaced. Sheffield Utd lost their minds and the gaps presented themselves at rapid frequency.
We took the lead through another Viktor-through-on-goal-moment; except this time he connected purely and forced a genuine save, but the ball headed back towards the net and Callum O’Hare strode into the “danger zone” (AKA an open goal) and seemed primed to grab his 2nd of the season. Ultimately, he did, but nobody’s particularly sure how. The ball hit the post, he stabbed out his leg, as did the defence and keeper, and after a minor pinball moment the ball shifted over the line, only for the defender to make absolutely sure and slam it into the side netting. The perfectionist in me would have preferred O’Hare to be the one to make sure prior to legging it in celebration, but ultimately it found its way, and the relief was clear.
Now 2-1 ahead, and with the seas parting in front of us, we pushed on. Vik – once again causing carnage with his bumbling ways – drove into the box from the left and dropped the ball into the feet of O’Hare, who showed his impulsive capabilities and nudged the ball away from the defender with a superb touch and swung a left-footed shot into the far corner. There was no confusion over this one, and the celebration into Singers Corner was as emphatic as it was overdue.
The game had swung clearly into our favour and we entered into “how many?” mode. The truthful answer is that it should have been six or seven. Godden had an open goal. O’Hare and Gyokeres both strode through to the keeper at points with clear sight of goal and were unable to punish, but in a way, the final goal was fitting enough – we were OK to leave it there.
As the season has progressed, Ian Maatsen’s become more and more keen to involve himself in the attacking moves, and was at the heart of the fourth. His right-foot shot dropped back to him at the edge of the box, and once again instinct took over as he swivelled back towards goal to slot O’Hare through. The pace of the pass and touch were both heavy but O’Hare reached out ahead of the keeper and laid cleanly into the path of Godden to put away the simplest of finishes.
Godden works relentlessly, but lacks most of the physical or technical attributes that would allow him to cause most Championship defenders too much concern. However, the man can score, and his minutes-per-goal ratio is second only to Mitrovic. That is hugely impressive. Combine that with his shot-to-goal ratio, you have acknowledge that his contribution this season has been superb. Give the man a couple of chances; you know he’s going to score one of them.
It was a phenomenally enjoyable game and one that I think the players will take huge confidence from. While it’s interesting to ponder just how much of the result was down to our relentlessness, and how much was due to Sheffield Utd’s capitulation, in many ways there doesn’t need to be an answer. We’ve shown enough this season to prove that we are a very capable team – how we garner confidence as we move into the final ten games isn’t as important as the fact that we may well have found some. We’re not a team that’s bumbled our way through the season and need to find an illusion of ability to see us to the end. We clearly hit a period of physical and mental fatigue, but if we’ve managed to weather that (that’s still to be determined), we are now just three points off the play-offs with ten games to go.
It’s not entirely clear to me how things are going to finish up, but with this win and performance we may have just conjured up enough momentum to set ourselves up for one final go at this. And with the return of Dabo, Hyam and Godden all at the same time, and Hamer playing like Pele incarnate, we enter a critical week with a burst of confidence and influx of quality that might be the difference between a point or two, or loads.
It’s not over yet, kids.