Saturday 1st October 2022
At Bramall Lane
Sheffield United (0) 1
Ollie McBurnie 64
Birmingham City (0) 1
Troy Deeney 70
Wes Foderingham, Chris Basham, John Egan (C), Rhys Norrington-Davies, George Baldock, Sander Berge, Oliver Norwood, Tommy Doyle (Rhian Brewster 64), Reda Khadra (Jayden Bogle 64), Iliman Ndiaye (James McAtee 89), Oli McBurnie (Billy Sharp 69)
Unused subs - Adam Davies, Oliver Arblaster, Kyron Gordon
John Ruddy, Maxime Colin, Dion Sanderson, Auston Trusty, Jordan Graham, Juninho Bacuna (Hannibal 65), Krystian Bielik, Tahith Chong (George Hall 81), Emmanuel Longelo, Scott Hogan (Lukas Jutkiewicz 90), Troy Deeney (C) (Jobe Bellingham 90+1)
Unused subs - Neil Etheridge, Jonathan Leko, Jordan James
Blues moved up to vertigo inducing fifteenth place in the table by virtue of digging in deep, working their socks off and holding Paul Heckingbottom's Championship leaders Sheffield United to a draw with a determined performance this afternoon, at what is known to the locals around these parts as: 'Beautiful downtown Bramall Lane'.
Oli McBurnie put the hosts ahead with a smartly taken goal in the sixty-fourth minute, but shortly afterwards Troy Deeney's first goal of the season denied the Blades what would've been a fifth successive victory in a ten game unbeaten run, while Birmingham City themselves have now clocked up four without loss.
A healthy turn out of 29,927, which included a completely sold out visitors section (lower tier, Bramall Lane End), made their way to this afternoon's game, regardless of the fact that no trains were running because of the ongoing industrial action by the RMT and ASLEF, which I fully support and am actively involved with. But, THE66POW isn't a political soapbox, so moving swiftly on.
It may well be Deeney's first goal in seventeen outings, but he brings so much more to the table than goals alone. But don't just take my word for it, ask his teammates what he has to offer, or better still, ask any opposition player that's just gone toe to toe against the Blues captain for a full shift.
Sander Berge, United's Norwegian international was so impressed with Deeney's shift today that he asked to swap shirts with him after the final whistle.
Then that nice Mr Deeney spotted an adolescent Blades fan in the South Stand as he was leaving the pitch and presented the excited youngster with Berge's shirt. What a pleasant chap, eh!?
In the build up to today's game, a number of Blades fans I know where predicting two things: i) Their team would beat 'that lot' today, and ii) Birmingham will get relegated this season because they can't keep escaping the drop like they have been doing for the last few years, forever.
It would be interesting to hear if any of them have revised their opinion of 'that lot' following this performance, that saw 'dem Blades struggle to put one over Blues, in a game that could've gone either way right until the very (late) end.
Sitting in United's Shoreham End, I heard a lot of anger vented at Birmingham players for allegedly running the clock down, by staying grounded after being fouled.
A bottom-half of the table side, go to play away from home the league leaders and use up a bit of time whenever the opportunity arises... it's called gamesmanship and any team in the same position would do exactly the same.
I countered that argument with, yes maybe, there had been a bit of lead-swinging from time to time, but the referee added seven minutes on at the end of the game to offset any of that (and actually allowed the game to run on for an extra nine minutes). And besides, if you don't want opposition players 'requiring lengthy attention' from their club physio, then bloody stop fouling them.
The Blades are a class side and have a whole host of players that can get in behind the opposition and hurt them.
But credit where it is due, John Eustace's side, though obviously still only a work in progress (as of yet), stood up to be counted today and presented the home side with far more of a formidable challenge to break down than a lot of people had been anticipating.
Blues still have some way to go before they can be considered promotion hopefuls, or even prospective play-off contenders, for the time being at least. But some astute recruitment and smart usage of the loan system, combined with the added bonus of a wealth of young talent coming up through the ranks and a healthy percentage of wise old heads overseeing the development of this squad, is beginning to show just how much progress has been made at the club and there's a feeling of growing cautious optimism and belief among the fans,... on the field of play at least, that this team are a cut above the perennial strugglers and also rans that Birmingham had become in recent years.
United started on the front foot and took the game to the visitors, but found the well organised Birmingham defence, that included the impressive twenty-one year old debutant, Emmanuel Longelo (on loan from West Ham United), to be a tough nut to crack, while the Blues experienced keeper John Ruddy was a commanding presence, especially on crosses and high balls into his domain.
Tommy Doyle's overhit cross evaded a cluster of his teammates in Ruddy's six-yard box and skimmed off the crossbar. While Sander Berge's low shot glanced off of Iliman Ndiaye and almost provided the Blades with an opener.
But after absorbing the early pressure, Eustace's side grew into the game and began to get forward more themselves, using the width of of flanks with Juninho Bacuna and Tahith Chong in particular, digging the ball out of the crowded midfield and feeding their overlapping full-backs/wing-backs.
Subsequently it was Bacuna, and Chong in particular who were getting caught the most by a flurry of late challenges and fouls.
Right at the end of the first-half Krystian Bielik headed over from a Chong delivery, as a frustrated home side began to get niggly, with Rhys Norrington-Davies pushing Bacuna in the chest twice, which the referee Darren Bond chose to let go for reasons best known only to himself.
As the second half got underway, the needle that had developed towards the end of the first period continued as Bielik and Berge tangled off the ball on the halfway line. An undignified spat ensued during which McBurnie was yellow-carded for his part in the hostilities.
Scott Hogan and Jordan Graham, both went close for Blues, before play switched in the opposite direction and McBurnie won a free-kick, that ultimately led to to the goalmouth action from which the Blades took the lead.
From my vantage point, Auston Trusty who was alleged to have fouled McBurnie, was possibly on the receiving end of some crafty gamesmanship on the part of prolific Scottish international striker, who made the most of the situation when he hit the deck, thus proving that all teams do it and one must take the rough with the smooth when these tenuous decisions either go for or against you.
But within six minutes, Blues were level when Chong's cross from the right, glanced off Berge's head as he jumped for the ball with Bielik and landed nicely for Deeney who made light work of smashing it past Wes Foderingham right in front of the visiting supporters.
The high tempo of the game continued right up until the final whistle, with neither side seemingly content to settle for just a solitary point for their efforts. But though both sides had chances to claim the spoils all for themselves, one-apiece and all square was exactly how it finished. A fair eflection on the game I thought, though no doubt their will be people in both camps who will think that their respective team deserved to win.
United will, of course, be looking to finish above Birmingham City this season... and in all likelihood they will. But at least they'll know that they had been in a proper game today, while Blues fans will head home happy with the fact that there are tangible signs of progress and improvement in their team and that the foundations are in place for a less stressful campaign, away from the lower reaches of the table. Consistency and realistic levels of expectancy will be the key,
FT: Sheffield United 1 v Birmingham City 1
This coming midweek QPR visit the Blades on Tuesday night while Blues are on the road again on the following night when they travel to Middlesbrough. I'll be at one of those games.