As the football season heads into its final months of existence, there are fewer and fewer games with actual stakes. However, if one were to attend a match where promotion or relegation is still a possibility, every minute can dictate how an entire season concludes. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Sheffield United’s EFL Championship clash with Millwall had much on the line for both teams. United were aiming for a return to the Premier League and came into the game a point behind Leeds in the hunt for the final automatic promotion spot. Their opponents, meanwhile, were trying to avoid a return to League One and were two points clear of the relegation zone.
With Leeds playing United’s city rivals Sheffield Wednesday in an evening kick-off, I travelled to Yorkshire to see if they could increase the pressure in the promotion race.
The Steel City
My journey north wasn’t the most harmonious as I witnessed a blow-up doll being paraded on my first train before I had to stand up throughout my second. Getting into Sheffield, though, I was pleased to discover the city had a more relaxed vibe.
As soon as I left the station, I became entranced by the impressive fountains and water features outside. I decided to eat there and watched a couple of middle-aged women try out a kid’s skateboard. Then when I headed into the city centre, someone handed me a free bar of chocolate. It was possibly the best introduction I’d ever experienced in a new city.
With the World Snooker Championships being held in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, the streets were decorated in banners and billboards that marked the occasion. Qualifying was taking place at the English Institute Of Sport but I didn’t have enough time to check out any matches. Instead, I headed to the Millennium Gallery where a free exhibition allowed visitors to take in some of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings.
In the middle of the first room, a taxidermied cat had half its body open for people to sketch its insides, while the other room featuring the drawings was darkened to prevent the 500-year-old pieces from fading. I admired the detail of da Vinci’s work and felt excited to see a sketch he drew in preparation for his painting of The Last Supper.
With less than an hour until kick-off, I also squeezed in a look around the Winter Gardens next door before taking a short walk down the road to the ground.
The game marked my first visit to a new ground in over a month, which could have been why I fell so much in love with Bramall Lane.
For a ground with such prestigious history that includes hosting football’s first ever floodlit match, I was astounded at how modern its surroundings were. I even held the outside toilets in high regard. What I particularly enjoyed, though, was the gantry above the Kop. Walking up there and seeing all the fans making their way to the stadium with the cityscape of Sheffield all around was really stirring.
Inside the stadium was equally as blood-pumping. Rock music blared through the PA as I took my seat about 10 rows behind the goal. The volume of noise then continued when it was time to kick-off. Sheffield’s version of Annie’s Song by John Denver rang around the whole stadium featuring lyrics about chip butties and ‘snuff’ and I felt ready to back the Blades in their quest for promotion.
After all that build-up, however, the first half failed to ignite. Millwall were well-organised and nullified the home side’s biggest attacking threats of Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick. Approaching half-time, there were many yawns around me and a child in front of me had actually fallen asleep.
Thankfully, things were a lot more lively in the second period. Since replacing defender Chris Basham midway through the opening 45 minutes, Gary Madine had done a great job leading the line and he put the Blades ahead after John Fleck burst into the box and squared it to the former Sheffield Wednesday man to tap home.
The team celebrated right in front of me and the home crowd sang an affectionate tune about how Madine ‘used to be a twat’. The song for Madine took me back 12 months to when he couldn’t score a goal for Cardiff City. I was at Derby County when the Bluebirds fans seemingly mocked his lack of end product by chanting ‘if Gary scores, we’re on the pitch’. It was nice to see him flourishing this time.
The failed Suarez sacrifice
Madine’s goal should have been the catalyst for the Blades to kill Millwall off but the away side grew into the second half and took total control when United’s top scorer, Billy Sharp, came off injured.
Home goalie Dean Henderson made some fine stops before he watched Tom Elliot’s header loop past him and get cleared off the line by teammate John Egan. Millwall’s players were animated and the chap next to me confirmed what had happened: Egan cleared the ball with his hand. A red card came out for the defender and Ben Marshall had the chance to equalise from the spot.
But, dramatically, his penalty smacked the bar and with five minutes left, I began to think Egan had produced the best sacrifice red card since Luis Suarez’ handball for Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup.
Agonisingly for myself and the 25,000 Blades fans in attendance however, the referee failed to give a number of clear fouls on United players in added time and Millwall’s Jake Cooper went up the other end to head home a deserving equaliser in the very last minute of the extra five allocated.
As all the Millwall players ran over to their fans behind the goal, a number of home fans around me stormed off. ‘I’m sick of this’ declared the chap next to me. He had a point, to be fair. Sheffield United have conceded 15 goals in the closing stages of games this season. If they miss out on automatic promotion, that could be the stat that proves most costly. In contrast, however, the point could be crucial to Millwall’s survival hopes.
There was a real feeling of devastation around Bramall Lane at full-time. Two of their key players were injured and they needed their city rivals to do them a favour at Leeds in the evening game. They didn’t and Leeds went three points clear with five games left.
It was a real shame to see United squander the lead at the death but I was thankful for the dramatic second half and glad I made the effort after feeling anxious about travelling up there beforehand.
I’ll be backing the Blades to earn promotion during the final run-in and will look forward to my next visit to Sheffield where I hope to explore more of its museums, catch some frames of world-class snooker and watch the other Sheffield team in action. But I’d be equally as happy with another 90 minutes at Bramall Lane. Ideally in the Premier League.