Shortly before kick-off the man on the public address system assumed a grave tone and urged everyone to telephone the NHS 111 service should they develop coronavirus symptoms. Throw in the earlier sight of a couple laden down with giant packs of toilet rolls staggering past the ground and it appeared a hint of panic was swirling in the South Yorkshire air.
If so, it has not reached a Sheffield United dressing room in which a majority of players simply do not do nerves and there is most definitely no fear of scaling unexpected heights. Norwich asked Chris Wilder’s team some searchingly intelligent questions but thanks to Billy Sharp’s winning goal and stellar performances from, among others, John Lundstram and Dean Henderson, these Blades simply shrugged off Daniel Farke’s smart, if ultimately forlorn, tactical button pressing.
It left Wilder’s players set fair for European qualification, keeping an attractive, risk-taking, recently resurgent Norwich side stuck at the bottom and in peril of becoming stranded as they arguably confront a failure to speculate to accumulate last summer. “I can’t ask much more from these players,” said Farke. “These guys gave everything today. Our performance was decent but it’s a setback.”
He and Wilder have been on very different trajectories since winning promotion last spring and money is foremost among the assorted reasons why. While Sheffield United’s manager dropped his record £22m signing Sander Berge to the bench, Norwich’s collective starting XI cost less than £20m.
To place such sums in context, Wilder has still spent an awful lot less than most Premier League counterparts but, unlike many peers, he has somehow kept his squad remarkably fresh. Not for the first time this season his entire 25-man squad was passed fit on Saturday and although luck plays a part, Wilder is clearly doing something right in the training and sports science spheres.
Happily medical science has repaired the shattered knee which, for a time, threatened to end Tim Krul’s career. After a lengthy stint in the shadows at Newcastle and Brighton, Norwich’s goalkeeper is back to his best, swiftly emphasising the point by expertly tipping Oli McBurnie’s powerful close-range header over the bar.
Although Norwich enjoyed prolonged periods of pleasing possession and Teemu Pukki’s volley struck the post, Wilder’s back largely three restricted them to half chances, with Jack O’Connell even finding time to advance from centre-half and see his goal-bound shot deflected narrowly wide. The stage was set for the 34-year-old Sharp to demonstrate precisely why he is keeping both the £10m Lys Mousset and David McGoldrick on the bench by meeting the consistently excellent Lundstram’s fabulously weighted, subtly curving cross with the most acrobatic of flying headers.
This time Krul had no riposte, Norwich were behind and Sharp had registered his third goal in four games.
Farke reorganised his side at the interval, withdrawing the talented but tired Todd Cantwell – partly at fault for the goal – and shifting to a daring midfield diamond.
With substitute Josip Drmic joining Pukki in attack, the now more direct visitors improved significantly and Sheffield United’s Manchester United loanee Henderson earned his corn with wonderful close-range saves from Mario Vrancic and then Drmic during a late bout of goalmouth bagatelle.
“Norwich had nothing to lose, they’re a brave side, I’ve got a lot of respect for Dan [Farke] and they made it difficult,” said Wilder. “But Dean is one of the best goalkeepers around and we keep rolling on.”