If it is an indication of how sorry Sheffield United’s season has been that this was a belated first league win at a weekend, at least it has spared them further indignities. By reaching 17 points, they leapfrogged Sunderland’s stragglers of 2005-06 and the Huddersfield strugglers of 2018-19 to reach 17 points. They cannot be bracketed in statistically the three worst Premier League teams in history. They can still be joined in the Championship by Brighton, who missed the chance to pull further clear of Fulham and a host of opportunities.
They have a seven-point cushion on the bottom three but their manager, Graham Potter, said: “It’s not enough because there’s a lot of points to play for.” While Neal Maupay submitted his candidate for the most glaring miss of the season, Brighton lived down to their reputation for wastefulness by extending their drought to three games. They did at least have the ball in the net but what appeared Jakub Moder’s maiden goal for Albion was chalked off after VAR was invoked; the Pole had run from an offside position to meet Adam Webster’s header to no one in particular and hook the ball in. “When they scored I didn’t see anything wrong and then when it came on the screen I saw it was offside,” said United’s relieved match-winner David McGoldrick.
Brighton could rue a first half of sterile domination when, apart from a Maupay shot that was created by a marauding Yves Bissouma and saved by Aaron Ramsdale, they barely threatened. After a reshuffle by Potter, the second half brought a bombardment as Bissouma was terrific. And yet this felt crushingly familiar for Brighton; better at expected goals than actual goals, the masters of misses undermined their other work with an inability to find the target.
“Football is about scoring goals and we didn’t do it,” said Potter. “We had some opportunities but it is up to us to do better.” Maupay was the worst offender, somehow contriving to spoon the ball way over the bar from three yards after Leandro Trossard fired a cross through a crowded penalty area. “It’s a frustrating result,” added Potter. “The performance wasn’t probably the level it has been recently.”
Brighton are yet to beat any of the teams below them; far below, in United’s case. The Premier League’s traitorous six were not the only clubs to enter another league last weekend, with their participation in next season’s Championship confirmed. While others devised a division without jeopardy, United are currently marooned in one, with their fate confirmed, but they nevertheless had an incentive. “We can’t down tools,” said McGoldrick. “We are playing for our shirt and playing for our future.”
Paul Heckingbottom, the caretaker manager, said: “The players deserve the utmost credit. For them it’s justice and the right result for their attitude because it has been a tough, tough season.”
Ramsdale has had a troubled campaign but made a series of saves to deny Maupay, Bissouma and the substitute José Izquierdo. John Egan was defiant in defence. McGoldrick has excelled in even the most harrowing of campaigns; his seventh goal means he now has 39% of United’s meagre tally of 18.
It also represented a reward for Heckingbottom, who secured his first win since Chris Wilder’s departure; if his team selection appeared a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic after striking the iceberg, he was nonetheless justified for his boldness. He shifted Ben Osborn into the attack, albeit leaving his team undermanned in midfield, and his three forwards combined for the decider. Osborn delivered an early cross and, after Joël Veltman tried to clear, Rhian Brewster found McGoldrick, who swivelled to score. Brewster’s own Blades drought extended to a 27th game, but he had one of his finest matches for the club. “To a man we were excellent,” Heckingbottom said. “The fight is still there, the spirit is still there. There is no reason why next season can’t be a successful one.”