This may yet go down as the worst ever campaign, but at least Sheffield United can reflect upon a January that has offered some respite.
They could record the lowest points tally in Premier League history but, after reaching the New Year without a victory of any description, they now have three: two in the FA Cup and a top-flight triumph over Newcastle. “There is no downside to winning games,” said Chris Wilder, who went almost six months without experiencing that feeling.
An FA Cup run could yet offer a silver lining to a sorry season. Winning briefly offered the novel sensation of a two-goal lead, something they had not enjoyed since July, and a reminder that this side was forged in League One and can prosper against third-tier teams.
Chris Basham and Billy Sharp were both recruited when United languished in League One and each struck against Plymouth, who now reside in mid-table there. The FA Cup draw has been kind. “It has given us an opportunity to find a bit of form,” said Wilder. Several of his players did but he noted: “It should have been far more comfortable.”
Like Bristol Rovers in the previous round, Argyle posed difficulties for United. Panutche Camara, who squandered the first half’s finest chance, scored in the second. There was no clean sheet for Aaron Ramsdale, whose troubled season continued and who ought to have saved Camara’s shot, even if Basham, who was caught in possession by Byron Moore, was also culpable. There was a distinctly nervy ending as Plymouth applied pressure.
At least Basham had already made a positive contribution. This was his first goal of the campaign but perhaps it was unsurprising he averted an upset. He is United’s putative player of the year, one who has maintained his standards even when others’ have slipped, and the overlapping centre-back overlapped to such an extent that he was four yards out when he headed in Sharp’s chipped cross.
The captain merited his goal for his movement; he evaded the Plymouth defence at will, even if he should have scored in the second minute when Oliver Norwood found him unmarked in the box. “Great pass, fabulous finish,” Wilder said. “Ollie had a difficult afternoon last Sunday so it was important for him to get back on the bike.”
When Norwood, the classiest passer on show, picked another hole in the Plymouth defence, the predatory Sharp raced on to his pass, skipped past goalkeeper Michael Cooper and found the unguarded net.
Sharp and Rhian Brewster were the two men to come in; Wilder looked for continuity to breed confidence by keeping nine starters. The two strikers experienced contrasting fortunes. The Under-20 World Cup winner Brewster has now drawn a blank on each of his 16 appearances. He had four opportunities to end his wait for a first Blades goal. Two drew decent saves from Michael Cooper. Two were directed wide. It mattered not on the day, but United’s probable demise this season can be traced in part to the £23 million spent on Brewster.
John Lundstram, who thumped a shot wide, was also wasteful. United have felt luckless at times this season and were again when Kelland Watts, with both arms raised above his head, handled Ethan Ampadu’s shot. Strangely, neither referee Lee Mason nor the VAR, Jarred Gillett, deemed it a penalty. “Dear me,” sighed Wilder.
But Plymouth have been a byword for entertainment this season and made a rich contribution. Luke Jephcott set up Camara, who blazed over from eight yards. After his redemptive goal, they pushed for an equaliser. “If there was another five minutes, who knows?” asked Argyle manager Ryan Lowe. “But we've done everyone proud."