For 10 games this season, talk of the P-word was banned around Bramall Lane. Points. Who wanted to predict how many Sheffield United would get? The D-word was not mentioned much either; Derby County, and their infamous record-low points tally of 11. Nobody wants to stoop lower than the Rams of 2007-08.
The Blades have finally cut through that “noise”, as Paul Heckingbottom described it, after a win that owed as much to fortune as it did the hosts’ fighting spirit. Thank goodness, for them, that James McAtee’s pass ricocheted off Toti Gomes to drop into Cameron Archer’s path for the opener. Thank goodness for Fábio Silva’s foolishness, bundling into George Baldock deep into stoppage-time to concede a penalty. Thank goodness VAR opted not to intervene.
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There was nothing lucky about Norwood’s spot-kick, thundered home in the 100th minute with the passion of a captain whose ship appeared to be sinking. It crashed in via the underside of the crossbar and then Norwood took flight, towards the jubilant crowd in the Kop Stand behind the goal to celebrate.
Norwood said the United players would remain “100 %” behind the under-fire Heckingbottom. Platitudes are fine, but points count more than promises. Nothing could have served his manager better than his sweetly struck winner.
They played the Great Escape theme music as supporters left the stadium, perhaps another indication of the optimism now coursing through the veins of the red half of Sheffield. They were staring down the barrel when Jean-Ricner Bellegarde levelled on 89 minutes. It looked as if Archer’s pinpoint strike would earn them a meagre point.
Wolves had been good value for the draw, but they lacked impetus until the arrival of Bellegarde from the substitutes’ bench on 61 minutes. First half chances had been squandered by Hwang Hee-chan and Sasa Kalajdzic; United looked understandably nervous but the visitors failed to take advantage.
Heckingbottom was adamant his players got everything they deserved. “It was a big performance and a big three points,” he said. “It’s not a walk in the park in this league but you can’t panic. It’s nice to win after a dominant performance.”
There has been some mitigation for Heckingbottom in the face of his critics considering United haven’t yet faced any of their fellow bottom four sides. Games against Burnley, Bournemouth and Luton await before 2023 is out; they will be crucial.
Heckingbottom also had nine players in the physio’s room for this game, though he was able to welcome back defensive stalwart Baldock after a calf injury. The right-back’s experience was telling, smartly winning the penalty after Bellegarde’s equaliser had taken an unlucky deflection off him 10 minutes earlier. “George relishes these games, definitely,” said Heckingbottom, whose side are still bottom.
Gary O’Neil was furious with what he dubbed a “crazy” penalty call from Rob Jones, which VAR did not overturn despite a lengthy review, with the referee standing by his decision after a heated conversation with O’Neil in the officials’ room after the game.
“It’s not a penalty,” said the Wolves manager. “Hardly any contact. It’s a tough one to discuss, really, it’s another terrible decision, I don’t understand why he feels the need to give it.
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“The only contact I can see is maybe Fábio’s shinpad with Baldock’s calf but it’s a graze. Baldock’s already on his way down. If you give a foul for that much contact, there’d be one million fouls in the 90 minutes. Craziness.”
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O’Neil conceded that Wolves had missed Pedro Neto, out with a hamstring injury, and wasted key chances. But he may also rue the role of Silva who missed a header to win the game in stoppage-time before bundling Baldock over to cap a miserable cameo, which left the 21-year-old substitute in tears at full-time.
“He was obviously very upset as he feels he’s cost the team, but he has my full support,” said O’Neil. “That defeat today is on me and the whole group, not on Fábio. We need to be better.”