Following last week’s dismal no-show against Luton, something needed to change. When Dean Smith emerged from the Brammall Lane tunnel before the game and acknowledged the travelling contingent, it seems that if nothing else, he has recognised the necessity to engage with the fans.
Both Isaac Hayden and Dimi Giannouloi, described as not ready to start by Smith on Friday, made the starting XI, with no sign of Gabriel Sara (illness) or Sam Byram on the bench.
The Newcastle loanee made a superb start inside the first minute. A superb sliding tackle before setting Josh Sargent away. The American slipped but retained possession and played Aaron Ramsey through who had strayed offside.
Minutes later, Max Aarons hit a long ball forward. Basham got to it first and guided it back to keeper Davies. The stand-in keeper took a touch only for Teemu Pukki to close in with lightning speed. As the ball was hacked clear, the Finn stuck out his right boot and the ball rebounded off the outside of his boot and into the goal.
From the restart, Sheffield United began to press City high up the field. Encouragingly, City were making a decent fist of playing through, round and over the press. Pukki was making a real nuisance of himself across the back line and none of the defenders looked comfortable dealing with him.
Sheffield United seemed to be inflicted by the same disease that has struck City in recent weeks – unable to find another red and white-shirted player with even the simplest pass. A throw-in was passed straight out of play.
City began to grow in confidence. With Giannoulis restored to the back line, there was a much better balance at the back. Hayden adding muscle and intelligent positioning so sadly lacking from the City midfield since a certain Norwegian left. And I don’t mean Mathias Norman.
City proved that lightning can strike twice on 15 minutes. Another Aarons’ ball forward. This time Pukki scrapped with Egan before pulling a shot across goal past the despairing Davies – his 84th goal for the Canaries to take him level with Robert Fleck in the all-time great lists.
City largely had control of the game. United had a fair share of the possession, but City tracked, defended and tackled with an energy sadly lacking in recent games.
Their most lively outlet was Osborne who was a constant threat to Aarons. City looked composed and organized at the back. It took until the 39th minute for Angus Gunn to make a serious save, tipping an Ahmedhodzic effort around the post.
At the other end, whilst largely dominant in the centre of the pitch, City were hardly laying siege to the United goal. There were some shots over the bar and wide, but only Sargent tested Davies.
Again Pukki caused more problems at the back and got the ball to Ramsey, he played in Sargent who lashed a shot that cannoned off Davies out for a corner.
The half ended slightly bizarrely. Two minutes into the three minutes added on, the ball looped to Hayden as the referee blew for an infringement. The loanee seemed to think it was halftime and volleyed the ball into the stands – and earned a yellow card for his trouble.
Given the robust nature of some of the tackles up to then, it seemed an unnecessary punishment.
United made a change at halftime, Ndiaye replacing McAteer. But City continued in the same vein as the first half. Straight away, Sargent won the ball on the edge of the City box before running the length of the field, outpacing the defending players but his final ball was too heavy for Ramsey.
United hit back but as the move broke down, Nunez played a great ball to Cantwell, who played another great ball to Pukki. The Finn cut it back to Ramsey who should have done much better with his effort on goal.
It was breathless end-to-end football for a while but was beginning to get feisty. Todd Cantwell didn’t help himself when clipped in the area – his over the top swan dive earned derision from the home fans.
The ante was upped on 52 minutes. Billy ‘The Sock’ Sharp tussled with Grant Hanley and went to ground as though shot. Hanley then foolishly tried to kick the ball through Sharp who leapt up and squared up to Hanley.
A free kick was awarded and Hanley got a yellow for his troubles. Somehow Sharp escaped punishment for his reaction.
The home crowd were beginning to get behind their team now. Sargent was tripped in the penalty box, but nothing was given. A Ndiaye shot was twice blocked by City defenders – legitimately despite howls of handball. Then a Giannoulis challenge on Sharp got a similar reaction to Hanley and finally earned a yellow card for the feisty forward.
Last week’s visitors to Brammall lane, Blackpool, ended up with eight men on the pitch. You can see why, The home side, and their supporters, are aggressive, abrasive and combative. They have the knack of getting to visiting players.
From the moment Hanley committed his foolish challenge on Sharp, the City players lost their composure and played straight into the hands of the disruptive home side.
On 61 minutes, United struck back. Sharp made a real nuisance of himself in the area. The ball came across to Osborne who rifled home at the back post.
On 63 minutes, Ollie McBurnie (£17m) replaced Brewster (£20m) and immediately began to impact the game, making his awkward presence known to the City defence.
Then Pukki was fouled by Egan, the subsequent Nunez kick beat everyone, Hanley got a glancing header to deflect the ball wide. United broke back. McBurnie looked yards offside but the subsequent shot was comfortable for Gunn.
Then bizarrely, Giannoulis slipped and City won a free kick. Heckingbottom’s protests earned him a yellow. Then the Greek defended put a foot in on McBurnie and won a card back. He was earning the attention of both the crowd and the Referee so it was no surprise when he was replaced by Tony Springett.
Straight away, United equalised.
A high ball into the area targeted Max Aarons, who inevitably lost out in the aerial challenge. Not the first time this tactic has been fruitful against City. McBurnie slid in for a simple tap-in at the far post.
There was no flow to the game. The aggressive tactics of the home side had successfully disrupted City. At one end, Aarons was knocked to the ground, with no penalty. Straight away Ndiaye weaved into the box and went to ground. Also no penalty awarded – with good reason as little of any contact was made.
Liam Gibbs and Onel Hernandez came on for Ramsey and Hayden. Springett did superbly well to win the ball, and battle past a United player before setting the Cuban substitute free on the left. He cut back and Nunez really should have done much better with his shot.
On 85 minutes, Cantwell played a lovely ball to Hernandez who was tripped. The ball ran to Gibbs who was also tripped and a penalty awarded. As the United players surrounded the referee it looked as though Josh Sargent would take it – but he was not to deny Pukki his attempt at a hat trick.
As he stepped up I had a feeling he would miss. He did – his weak shot was gratefully saved by the diving Davies to atone for his earlier error.
Despite seven minutes of added time, neither side could break the deadlock. At full-time, once again, Dean Smith acknowledged and applauded the travelling fans.
If I was writing a school report, in classic style I would write ‘tries hard, could do better’ for City. A largely dominant first half did not yield as many efforts on goal as it should have, but that was so much better than last week.
Then in the second half, they were totally undone by the aggression of United. They needed to stay cool. They didn’t.
Quite how five City players were given yellow cards and only Billy Sharp for United is a mystery. The only consolation is that Blackpool suffered a worse fate. One can only imagine what they practice on the training pitches in Sheffield.
On the individual front, Cantwell and Nunez were good today. If they, along with Dimi, would stop the theatrics when fouled, then they may actually win more sympathy from the referee. Pukki and Sargent were a handful all game. Hayden, I’ve already mentioned. On the other side, Aarons struggled with Osborne all game and Ramsey looked a little lightweight again.
It’s progress. Better than recent weeks, and nothing if not entertaining. Pause for breath. Bring on Burnley…