IT WASN’T the prettiest of spectacles. But if Sheffield United are to win promotion, preferably via the automatic route, more of the same is required.
The performance to beat Middlesbrough by a single goal at Bramall Lane never touched the giddy heights of what was produced against Aston Villa a few days earlier.
But slick, flowing football counts for little if like at Villa Park you throw away a three goal lead with eight minutes of normal time remaining and have to settle for a point.
There was little danger of that against Boro who finished with ten men following the dismissal of big defender Daniel Ayala who collected two yellow cards in the space of seven minutes.
Goalkeeper Dean Henderson, uncharacteristically at fault for two of the goals in the Second City, made a terrific save late on from substitute Britt Assombalonga in what was the visitor’s best chance of the match.
Otherwise United looked comfortable, particularly in the second half when manager Chris Wilder opted for a more direct approach to unpick the Championship’s best defence.
The match as a whole was testament to Wilder’s goal at the outset of his appointment in 2016 to have almost like-for-like cover in all positions. Without two major players in defenders Chris Basham (suspended) and Jack O’Connell (injured), Martin Craine stepped up admirably and Enda Stevens reverted seamlessly from wing-back to left centre-half.
When another vital element, wing-back George Baldock had to be replaced after receiving a knock, defender Richard Stearman, who headed the second-half winner from Oliver Norwood’s penetrating free kick, came off the bench to force another reshuffle to great effect.
“It quickly changes around, losing George, losing Jack, obviously Chris Basham, these things happen and we have to be ready,” said Wilder.
“I thought Craine was outstanding, Kieran Dowell to play there for the first time in his life (left wing-back) showed just how adaptable and what a great attitude he has towards the game.
“Enda Stevens, not his natural position so we had to shuffle it. It wasn’t a fluid performance (in the) first half but we really upped the tempo (in the) second half and Gaz (Gary Madine) was a big influence, we went into him a bit early and I thought his partnership with Bill (striker Billy Sharp) and David McGoldrick in behind really caused themselves all sorts of problems.”
Stearman is a perfect example of the squad culture his boss has painstakingly nurtured. Signed from Fulham, the 31-year-old was a regular during the Blades first season back in the Championship. Following the summer arrival of £4million central defender John Egan from Brentford, Stearman has had to take a regular place on the bench.
He said, sounding very much like future management material: “I’d like to think that I have supported the lads well who have played in my position. I know my role in the team and I want to do the best that I can.”
Asked if he expected to make more of a contribution from now until the end of the season, Stearman added: “I certainly hope so whether that’s on the pitch or on the bench. I’ll still give 100 per cent and hopefully that helps to bring the victories to get the lads over the line.”
The win, in front of 24,805 crowd, closed the gap on second placed Norwich City, who lost 3-1 at Preston North End, to two points. Leaders Leeds United, are a further point ahead.
It makes one think of what might have been had United held onto what looked for so long like a certain three points at Villa Park and serves as a reminder of the fine margins between success and failure at the top end of the table in the final analysis.
Wilder admitted the draw at Villa which on most occasions would be viewed as a positive, took the wind out of his and his players’ sails.
“It was a big result for us especially (after) what happened on Friday. There were a lot of down people, me included, over the weekend. It was a tough weekend for all of us but the only way you can answer and put that to bed is by producing a Sheffield United performance and in the second half, I keep saying it, that was a definite Sheffield United performance.”
The only sour note of the evening came from bitter Boro boss Tony Pulis who blamed referee Andy Woolmer and a linesman as responsible for his team’s defeat which saw then slip to sixth, seven points behind United.
“I’m really disappointed with the goal. I think the linesman's decision for it to be a free-kick is shocking. If they're going to give a free-kick for that then the lad who scored the goal has pushed and jumped on Dael (Fry) and the referee's in a great position to give it and doesn't give it. It's a free-kick every minute of the day.
"It was such a big game tonight and we have a referee who's only refereed eight games in the Championship all season.
“You look around and you've got other referees who are refereeing Premier League games and dropping down. That's not the referee's fault, that's the person in charge and that can't be right. That's not good enough.”
Referring to Middlesbrough’s approach, Wilder said: “It was a tough game for the referee to officiate because it was a physical game. I don’t think there can be any complaints about the sending off, they were definitely two bookable tackles.
“They give it out just as much as we give it out and they have to take it just as much a we take it. There’s no moaning and groaning from me. I think after you get after some of these big, powerful sides they don’t really like it.”