Late report - as stayed over in Exeter and only got back this afternoon.
The Blades poor end to the season ended with a limp 2-2 draw at already relegated Exeter as the home side scored an equaliser with virtually the last kick of the game. In truth it did not matter as cross city rivals Wednesday had already won and were celebrating promotion after a stunning end to the season. United had picked up just 2 points out of 9 from the final three games and now go into the playoffs against in form Stevenage without two of its strikers with their leading scorer imprisoned and another now suspended after a moment of utter stupidity in the first half at St James Park.
The Blades had done well to come back from a wonderful strike from Alan Gow and the Beattie sending off, to lead thanks to Lee Williamson and Kevin McDonald’s strikes but as Wednesday coasted to a 2-0 win, United could not even finish with a victory as sloppy defending led to a late leveller from Bennett.
United knew it was always going to be an outside shot but were backed handily by a good away following with most packed on the away terrace but Blades fans occupied three other sides of the goal including a number on the Exeter Kop! United made three changes with Beattie, Cresswell and Flynn coming in for Porter, O’Halloran and Quinn.
The game began with Exeter on top and Noble had a half chance but he fired over. Soon after Nardiello’s effort was deflected over. United had not really got going and were sloppy in possession and not holding the ball up in the final third. Indeed it was concerning that many 50/50 balls were being won by the already relegated hosts who had nothing to play for. Williamson did show some aggression but was booked for a late challenge but Noble blazed the free kick over. United had shown nothing as an attacking force but had a rare opening when Lowton forced a corner. From the corner McDonald’s effort was off target but the away side won another corner but Beattie’s flick header was well off target.
United now were enjoying a good spell but Williamson perhaps should have done better with an effort after Cresswell had won a knockdown right on the keeper Krysiak; but the midfielder’s shot was blocked. Despite this better spell it was the home side who took the lead thanks to a superb strike. The ball was switched from left to right and whilst GOW may have been offside, it seemed Taylor may have been too late coming out. The former Blackpool man hit a beautiful half volley right into the far corner giving Simonsen little chance.
As news of Wednesday scoring almost at the same time filtered around the ground, United knew the promotion dream was slipping away. Nardiello got in again after hesitation from Maguire but his effort was off target. United had been poor so far and tossed possession away continually for a spell and looked completely devoid of confidence. The frustration boiled over and a moment of madness not only threatened to run today’s chance but also their chances on the playoffs.
The ball ran loose and as Dunne got to the ball first with a committed tackle, Beattie went in two footed with a dangerous lunge. He may have got some of the ball but it was an easy red card for the referee despite the protests from the United players; with Doyle getting booked subsequently. United were able to regroup quickly though and were able to get level after good work from McDonald and then Lowton saw WILLIAMSON in who toe poked past the keeper. Just before the break Dunne and Simonsen were booked after a clash but United at least went in level even if with events back in Sheffield and the numerical disadvantage they knew it would take a momentous turnaround for it to end in glory.
Straight after the break United did get in front. MCDONALD picked up the ball and hit a shot from just outside the box that hit a defender and completely wrong-footed Krsiak. United fans behind the goal could celebrate but the news from Hillsborough came in soon after that it was 2-0 meant they knew in truth it did not matter what happened. Dunne was replaced by Bennett but for the next stage of the game it became somewhat scrappy and mired in a midfield battle. Exeter had a man advantage but the impetus they had when it was 11 v 11 seemed to have gone and only a rare chance from Nardiello that was deflected wide broke up a poor spell.
United made their first change as Porter came on for Cresswell and Exeter made a double change in an attempt to get back in the game. There were few chances for either side. A few corners and free kicks came to nothing for Exeter whilst a corner for United saw a chance for Maguire off target from a corner. The best opportunity of the half for the Blades saw McDonald intercept a throw out from the keeper but his effort was poor and came to nothing. Quinn and Hill came on for Flynn and Williamson as United tried to preserve the advantage. Noble then had Simonsen scrambling across his goal and he needed two attempts to save the ball.
United had a chance to seal the win when Porter did well to turn one defender and then get away from another and his precise shot seemed goal bound but caromed off the base of the post. The game entered three additional minutes of stoppage time and it seemed as if United had done enough to at least get back to winning ways but of course it was symbolic of the way things have gone for the Blades that they could not even see off this game.
With time almost up a cross came in and Nardiello had a free header that Simonsen palmed up but not away and with United players statuesque, BENNETT was quickest to react to nod home. United took the kick off but the final whistle came straight after and United could not even finish with a victory as news from S6 confirmed most United’s fans fears.
United – It was another very indifferent performance for the most part but then after we went behind and had a man sent off we actually woke up and showed some pride to get a couple of goals and then looked like we had done enough to win an awful game. We at least showed some pride and against a numerical advantage showed something approaching fight. The football was still poor but they had to gut it out and dig in I suppose. However, for the most part there was little skill nor football on offer and we seemed to have lost a lot of the patient football and creativity we had.
Sadly despite them not doing much in the second half, more awful defending (we are conceding goals pretty alarmingly at the moment) gave a poor Exeter side a point. It seemed like even United knew that they were playing in vain and that a win would not have mattered but it would have been nice to end with confidence up and going in on a win but to pick up 2 points from 9 I the crucial last 3 games is poor. In truth it was the two previous games that had cost the Blades and they knew that today was a slim hope. Wednesday have had an incredible run. Fair play to them. We could not finish the job and they have. Yes we have endured bad luck and have got a lot of points and in some ways deserve to go up but the rules are the top two go up and it does not matter how many points you get in third. We needed 5 points from the last three games and could not do it. In the end it mattered little what we did before that as when it mattered we could not finish the job. Yes we can point to the two derby games and also to Oldham but I still felt despite being caught we still had the ascendancy. Win at MK Dons, or Stevenage. Even pick up two draws? We could not do it. I get called for saying that the side are one that had bottled it and yes maybe I am being harsh with the points and games we have won this year but ultimately they did bottle it down the stretch whilst our rivals kept their composure and finished the job.
I have really enjoyed this season and did not expect us to be in the top 6 but then I did not expect us to keep the core of the side (that whilst were poor last season and went down should be too good for this division). We have scored a lot of goals, played decent football and entertained. It is a shame we have just missed out and also to ‘them’ but I do feel all the momentum has gone with a decision in court and then the meltdown in the last few weeks. I think Wilson had a big job to lift the team and ‘manage’ them in the last couple of games after what happened with Evans but he has not done it. I think he has done a great job up to this point and despite a mixed bag of signings (McDonald/Phillips/Clarke good, Flynn/JLF ok Porter poor but then short term/loan signings post Xmas have been awful) he has done well to keep them playing football and scoring goals and shake off the malaise of relegation. However, I think he has failed in the last few weeks with the team looking lethargic and also some poor team selections and inability to come up with any kind of plan B/C when the first method of play has not been working.
More worryingly for me is that the confidence and vigour we had seen in the previous months seems to have gone. The players had their heads down at the end and there seemed no fire nor belief. I felt the body language at full time was awful and whilst that is understandable there was no feeling that we have another chance and all it not lost. They looked a beaten side. Maybe I am wrong but that it what it looked like. It was a totally different reaction to when we drew with Palace a few years ago and Morgan was rallying the troops at full time. Hopefully they can recover and have a week to go again but then I said the same after MK Dons and then again after Stevenage and the performances and results to end the season have been really poor. The decent football we had been playing seems to have gone and it had become a bit of a mish mash in recent weeks. We don’t seem to know what style we are playing and where our strengths are. Up front we look totally toothless and now with Beattie gone we lose the angle of attack that worked so well against Stevenage last week. We are left with the slow and immobile Cresswell and Porter and the quick but pretty clueless O’Halloran. Not sure how we can really score enough goals but maybe more than that how we can actually keep Stevenage out? We are tossing goals away at the moment and look very easy to get in and behind. We need to tighten up and play with a discipline next week.
I get the sense we are the team who look most out of form in recent weeks going into the playoffs. Stevenage have all the momentum and MK Dons have been very good up to yesterday. Even Huddersfield have come again. With a full team (Evans, JLF, Beattie etc) I would still think we would at least get to the final but now I think it is going to be a struggle. Stevenage know that even if they don’t beat us at their place they can come to the Lane and be very confident of winning (had so many efforts the other week) and know with our slow defence and weak keeper they will get chances to score. I hope once again I am wrong. I was proved right on us chucking it away but I have not seen enough character in this side when it matters (2 wins in 10 against top 5 says it all – win at Huddersfield apart we have frozen against many of the better sides and not been as good as them). It is ok saying we may have 30,000 at the Lane in a week or so but we had that the other week and still could not beat them. I am unsure if Wilson can find enough in putting together a different approach or galvanise to beat them over 2 legs. The table says we are 20 points better than them but sadly without Evans we do look a completely different team and whilst we were not a one man team he was a massive part of what we did. I would in the absence of striking options probably play Cresswell on his own and Quinn or McDonald just behind with a 5 in midfield. We need to close down their full backs who are their biggest strength and Doyle has to at least get close to Freeman. Maguire and Collins also need to do a better job than they did on Agyemang the other week. This is the time when Wilson and his coaching staff have to earn their wages. We have been poor against them and failed to beat them twice this season. We in theory should still be better than them despite problems stated so surely they have a plan to be able to do better. If they don’t it would be a disappointing end. Indeed a failure to beat them at least once (albeit we could win and still lose on aggregate I suppose) would be quite poor – to fail to beat Stevenage in four attempts and we deserve to stay in this division.
Exeter – Thought they were a poor side but the fact they have scored 6 goals against us in two games shows how poor we have been defensively. The lad in midfielder Noble was dangerous, the first goal from Gow as a great strike and Nardiello was always a threat but you can see why they have struggled. They gave the ball away even more than us, looked slow at the back and at times they looked even more clueless going forward than us and they had an extra man. Still they probably did enough for a draw on chances and possession. They at least kept going when for long stages in the second half it seemed like they had given up but gave it one last go at the death and we caved in again. Think Tisdale has done a really good job on limited resources and may get a job at this level at least if things don’t go so well with Exeter.
Simonsen 7/10 – Thought he had little chance with the first goal as it was a great strike and with the second it was hard to hold the header but maybe he could have pushed it wider rather than centrally. Made a few other routine saves and a couple of nervy moments but no real major errors today. Daft booking.
Lowton 6/10 – Thought once again he did well going forward and looked like one of our main threats and set up the first goal. Defensively he was poor though again and was nowhere near Gow on the first goal. He lost his man a few times and does not do the basics defensively. He needs to work a lot on his defensive work. He probably will still get a move in the summer to the league above but if he wants to become a top player he still has a lot of work to do to add to his clear ability.
Taylor 6/10 – Pretty ordinary. Gave his winger too much space and was sloppy in possession when he had it. Fails to stop the cross and often gets in awful positions (he was the one who played them onside for the first goal). He is the best of the three awful left backs we have fit. This is going to sound harsh but I don’t think he even looks like a footballer! He runs in a strange way and is so slow it is untrue. Technically he is quite poor and does not really offer much going forward. Thankfully he is another out of contract that we won’t have to see again in a few weeks.
Maguire 6/10 – Think he has looked tired and leggy the last few weeks and a long season is taking its toll on him. Understandable as he is still only 19 but with no other defenders we have no choice but to keep playing him. Today he lost his man on a couple of occasions and got turned a few times too. I think it was he that lost the header against Nardiello on the equaliser.
Collins 7/10 – Our best defender again as he has been most of this season. He did the basics today and tried to keep the rest together but is struggling to hold the defence together when many of the rest are not even doing the basics such as positional play, staying close to their man or properly clearing it. He has been a real surprise this season and has not made many mistakes all season long.
Doyle 5/10 – Another nothing kind of game. I cannot recall him doing much of note in terms of winning tackles, making blocks or breaking up play. He has regressed into the player of last season in the last few weeks. Need a big performance from him against Stevenage key man Freeman next week but not sure he has the pace or mobility to do it. Maybe Monty might be more suited to such a man marking job and may freshen things up?
McDonald 7/10 – Looked our most likely man in creative sense. His passing was mixed but he at least tried to get us on the front foot and tried to make things happened. He scored a goal via a deflection and had another couple of efforts. We need to play with 2 scrappers around him in midfield so he has more space and can get on the ball next week. Stevenage crowded him out and gave him no time last week so we need to get him space and time.
Williamson 7/10 – He scored again and looked an attacking threat again at least unlike many others. Played better than his horror show last week and he at least when he gets a chance almost always gets it on target. He may be an option as a second striker if we are struggling but he is going to need to be on his game and probably get us another goal if we want to get though.
Flynn 6/10 – He did ok but a bit like Taylor he is the sort of player that would have us in the middle to lower reaches of this league if we had a team of them. Sounds a bit offensive in what I am saying but what I mean is that he is ok, neat and tidy but so ordinary and does not have another gear. He is a decent sort of footballer but you never think he will burst past his man, score a wonderful goal, go on a mazy run or cause his full back any real problems.
Cresswell 6/10 – Worked hard again but can’t remember him seeing much of the ball, he never really looks much of a goal threat (granted did score last week) most games these days. Sad that he is our chief striker and main threat going into the playoffs when he sadly looks so tired and old. He always gives his best and never hides but he lack quality, pace and mobility these days.
Beattie 1/10 – Did not get in the game much after his decent cameo last week and then makes an utterly ridiculous tackle. Heard some people defending it and saying he won the ball but it was a certain red and now he gets a four match ban. Disappointed that Wilson defended the indefensible. He will never play for this club again and his re-signing was a mistake. We would have been better going for some pace and youth (Antonio? / Clarke?). People say he has not been given a chance but the few games he has started he has done nothing or been sent off. To be sent off twice is totally unprofessional and totally unnecessary on both occasions. I am sure he may head off to the States or Australia or somewhere for one last pay day now as I am unsure he will find a club much higher than league two these days. Sadly he looks done and it is a sad way to end his career after his excellent first spell. He let the team down badly not just for today but for our chances in the playoffs when we were already short of players in this area.
Porter – Actually did ok when he came on and nearly scored after a decent run and shot. He still is not the answer and it is frightening he has another year left on his contract. He is the sort of player that has not even been good enough at this level and probably has to go down another league to be successful.
Hill – Came on right at the end. Not sure why we signed him or what he offers? Williams is poor but is better than him. He must be still injured?
Quinn – Surprised he was dropped as he did well last week but for the second half of the season his performances have not been good enough and he has coasted at times. I think his body language is that of someone who is already half way out of the club and I think that it is the right time for a parting of the ways for both player and club. Hopefully before this does happen he can give us a big performance next week.
Officials – Despite what Wilson said the red card was an easy decision to make. The rest of the game was a bit of a non-event with not really any other moments of controversy. He booked a few more of ours for a few innocuous things and did seem a bit fussy at times but as I say I can’t protest the red card. There was one bad tackle through the back of Williamson that maybe was a red too and it was strange that he did not ‘even’ things up.
Crowd/Atmosphere/Day out – The ground was less than basic. As we approached the rusty back of the stand with the peeling green paint we kind of got a shock. It was basically falling down and decrepit. It was like a bad Millmoor. We stood behind the goal and it was a decent atmosphere albeit a little flat after events unfolded. Nice to stand at a game again even though it was awful facilities. One toilet for the whole away end was clearly inadequate and meant half time was ridiculous and a potential health and safety hazard as the queues started from the terrace. It seemed like the facilities in the two side stands where Blades were sat were not much better. There seemed a few other United fans dotted around the ground and maybe 20 or 30 were on the Kop and moved to be together and were surrounded by Police. They were then moved in the second half but not sure where? The second half saw an air of acceptance as the result at Hillsborough confirmed it did not matter and even their late goal did not seem to change people’s emotions. There were a few arguments between those saying ‘get behind them/we can still do it’ with quite a few already accepting we have blown it and are unlikely to recover. Even the Wembley chants at the end were a bit lethargic and more in hope than expectation.
As for the rest of the weekend, it was good. We arrived in Exeter just after 9am on Saturday morning after setting off just before 6am which was good going as we hit no traffic whatsoever. We stayed at the Mercure in the centre and I asked if there was any chance we could check in early and they said normally we could but was told we could not as they had a big party staying. It then dawned on me the big party was the United team as I nearly bumped into Richard Cresswell. So I could not even get my head down for a few hours due to them! We saw a few others coming down for breakfast, Ertl, then Montgomery and then Morgan and Barlow etc. Saw a few others floating around. We then went for a walk and ended up by the Cathedral near all our coaching staff that was also enjoying the scenery. Morgan seemed less impressed with the Cathedral than Barlow. After this we had a breakfast at the Wetherspoon (Georges Meeting House) where a number of other Blades were around and then had a few beers down by the Quayside. We then went to a few bars in town before heading toward the ground where we drank at the Wells Tavern which was full of Blades. We could not get in the marquee as it was full so proceeded into the ground. After the game we had a pleasant curry and then I felt rubbish for the final few hours of the day. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe the disappointment, maybe too many ales but I felt rough but we stayed out and went to a few bar/club types such as Cavern and then Timepiece by the Castle (where everywhere in there seemed to be 16-18!). We went back to the hotel (no sign of the team they must have gone straight back) and got some kip before setting off just before midday today. Exeter seemed a decent place with a few decent pubs and seemed a nice city with quite a bit of greenery around where we stayed and also a few old fashioned cobbled style streets in some parts. There were some bits that were no better than Rotherham / or the Moor but the quayside was nice and it seems like it would be a decent place to be as a student.