Sheffield United’s U18 side got the ball rolling for their season with a solid point at Shirecliffe, where they hosted local rivals Leeds United on Saturday morning.
The Blades had notable absentees such as Jamie-Dean McDonagh, who has everyone wishing him a speedy recovery after breaking his leg on international duty, Otis Khan, Gareth Owen and Jake Eyre, who’s impressive pre-season form with the academy meant he found himself on the substitutes bench at Bramall Lane as the first team played Colchester United on Saturday afternoon.
As the coaching staff look to try and make the transition between the youth side and first team as smooth as possible, United lined up in the increasingly popular 4-2-3-1 formation. Jake Eastwood was given a starting berth in goal, with Kyle Scarisbrick, Joe Cheeseman, Ioan Evans and MJ Kedman (from right to left) in front of him making up the back four. Louis Reed and Ben Whiteman were the two deeper midfielders, and the more advanced three consisted of Jason Paling, Jake Wright and Joel Coustrain (from right to left) with giant striker Dan Cockerline spearheading the attack on his own.
Despite the visitors having the first effort on goal, it was the home side who started the brighter. They worked the ball into some good areas, with the biggest threat being down the right early on as Paling and Scarisbrick linked up well to win the Blades a succession of corners and free kicks. Louis Reed was the taker for all of these set pieces, but through no fault of his own they all lead to nothing other than a tame header from captain Ioan Evans, which was easily saved by Leeds ‘keeper Dan Atkinson.
The first real chance of the game came 15 minutes in as Cockerline managed to work an opening on the edge of the box, but he saw his very well hit shot go just past the post.
The Leeds players seemed to take that warning extremely well, as they got themselves on the front foot from that point. First up, some good work down the left hand side meant they managed to get in behind the Blades right back Scarisbrick, but the low cross was cut out well by Eastwood as he dived to his left. The next opening for them didn’t take long to arrive, as just moments later the Leeds number 7 created an opening down the right, only to see his perfect pull-back blazed over the bar by Frank Mulhern from five yards out.
The third chance in quick succession followed for the visitors, and this time there was no mistake. It was the number 7 again who caused the problems, and as his cross was partly cleared, the ball was picked up by central midfielder KALVIN PHILIPS, who calmly curled the ball into the bottom right corner from 25 yards out to give Leeds the lead in the 20th minute.
This goal caused a bit of unrest in the Sheffield United ranks, and it told as Leeds dominated the next ten minute spell, winning several free kicks around the box and having a possible penalty shout turned down as Evans challenged just inside the area.
Once United settled down, they managed to get into the final third thanks to a good run from Paling, and his back post cross had just too much for Coustrain to reach. However, the Irishman recovered the situation well to whip in a low cross for Cockerline, who could only poke it wide under severe pressure from the Leeds defence.
Leeds’ last attempt of the half came in the 37th minute, and it was Kalvin Philips trying to double his tally for the season. His speculative strike from 30 yards dipped late, and would have sneaked under the bar had it not been for an excellent fingertip save from Eastwood.
Sheffield United didn’t create another real chance before the close of the half either, despite Joel Coustrain’s best efforts. He was unfortunate to see his pass just cut out by the Leeds left back as he looked to thread the ball through for Paling, and right on half time he saw his long distance effort take a wicked deflection only to see Atkinson save to his right.
The second half started in a similar theme to the first, as the team kicking off found themselves on the back foot in the opening stages. The visitors managed to create two good openings early in the second half, but both ended up with shots off target. First up, it was Ali Amra who cut onto his right foot to beat his man, but dragged a shot wide from the edge of the area. That was followed up by an excellent chance for Mulhern, but he tried to be too cute and saw his attempted lob go sailing over the crossbar by some distance.
On the back of this, United reacted by making a couple of changes in quick succession. Jake Wright was the first to be replaced by Cvetkovic wearing number 15, and Conor Dimaio was brought on in place of Joe Cheeseman. This brought a number of positional changes for the home side, as Kyle Scarisbrick moved from right back to centre half, Jason Paling dropped from right wing to right back, Cvetkovic was moved to the right wing and Dimaio was the man in the middle of the three behind Dan Cockerline.
These changes worked almost instantaneously, as Cvetkovic won a corner on the right less than a minute after they’d taken place. Louis Reed came over to take the corner, and as it was driven in with his right foot, second year scholar BEN WHITEMAN timed his run perfectly to meet it and head it into the corner, bringing the scores level after 61 minutes.
United could have taken the lead moments later. Whiteman was involved yet again as his pass saw Coustrain break through the Leeds defence, but his first touch was slightly too heavy and Atkinson rushed out to gather at his feet before he could pull the trigger.
Leeds reacted to this with a substitution of their own, bringing off the number 7 and replacing him with number 17. It wasn’t long before he played a part, and after Ioan Evans’ fantastic block to prevent Mulhern’s shot testing Eastwood, he showed an impressive turn of pace to get past Kedman before finding FRANK MULHERN at the back post, who had the simplest task to head into an empty net from six yards out in the 73rd minute.
It was hard to see a way back into the match for the Blades from this point, as the visitors executed their game plan perfectly to make sure they didn’t give up a chance. In fact, it was them who had the better chances after that goal with Mulhern involved twice more. Firstly, he nodded down for Ali Amri who was beaten to the ball by Scarisbrick, and secondly it was Mulhern with a chance himself from the edge of the box, but he blazed his shot way over the bar when he should have done better.
Mulhern was in the action again a few minutes later, but for the wrong reasons. He exchanged words with Kyle Scarisbrick after a strong challenge, and appeared to raise his hands towards the defender’s face behind the play. The referee didn’t see the incident, but his assistant did and both players received a yellow card for their troubles. The Leeds striker was clearly fired up, and he was lucky to stay on the pitch as he jumped in to a tackle with two feet and studs showing. He did win the ball, but it was dangerous and Paling was lucky to escape with just a knock.
Sheffield United didn’t let this intimidate them though, and they managed to equalise for the second time in the 88th minute. Some good work down the left hand side saw JOEL COUSTRAIN get in behind the Leeds defence, and he calmly rounded Atkinson before slotting the ball home despite the best efforts of the centre half to keep the ball out.
This would be the end of the scoring, but not the end of the action as both sides looked to get the winner. Leeds were the first to go close as a cross from the lively number 17 was met at the back post, Eastwood being grateful to see the header go wide. A flash point followed as United looked to respond, and after winning a free kick the Leeds number 6 aimed a headbutt at Conor Dimaio right in front of the referee. Thankfully, it didn’t connect and the official chose not to take action.
The very last chance of the game fell to the home side in the fourth minute of injury time. The tireless Dan Cockerline turned his man on the edge of the area, but snatched at his shot and saw it go high over the bar. The resulting goal kick brought the final whistle and an end to a very hard fought, entertaining derby game in the opening game of the season.
And the derby action continues next weekend, with the Blades making the short trip to Middlewood as they face Sheffield Wednesday. Kick off is at 11am.