Six seasons it’s taken Sheffield United to get the hang of League One.
That’s a long spell at this level for a club of their stature. But they’ve cracked it now. They probably only ever needed a quality manager. something they have in Chris Wilder after spending too long with Nigels Adkins (overrated) and Clough (overrated and over-cautious).
Blades’ travails show how tough League One can be. If a team with a huge fanbase home and away, and the financial advantage that brings, can find the likes of Burton Albion and Rotherham United hard to overcome, it’s no wonder Posh, with their 4,500 diehard fans, are struggling to emulate the success of Darren Ferguson’s merry band of over-achievers from a few years back.
Wilder is clearly smart (he escaped from Sixfields as soon as he possibly could in the summer after all) and he can clearly motivate. He also came across as a decent bloke after the game when he spent time showing compassion to a side he’d seen beaten by a goal four minutes from time.
If anything he was too kind by declaring Posh had given the league leaders ‘as hard a time as anyone else over two games this season’. Posh did play well at Bramall Lane when also losing 1-0 back in September, but if this was one of the tougher tests for ‘The Blades’ they must have had some walkover victories earlier in the campaign.
Posh manager Grant McCann claimed after the game his side had competed as equals until Billy Sharp (who else?) stooped to conquer from close range in the 86th minute. He was right only in relation to the scoreline.
This was no capitulation as we witnessed when the MK Dons visited the ABAX two weeks ago, and it was no feeble surrender like the one that took place at Oldham a few days before that. It was also far from a season-defining result. Posh lost little ground in their own little battle for a play-off place, and their hardest remaining fixture is now out of the way.
But Sheffield United bossed a lot of this match. They came on particularly strong at the end of each half and, although it was hugely disappointing to concede defeat so late when Sharp nodded home following a fine right-wing cross and James Hanson’s nod back across the six yard box, it was no suprise, and it certainly wasn’t unfortunate, apart from the timing.
Wilder emphasised the bold nature of the Blades’ play was a key to victory, but then it’s easy to be ‘brave’ when you have more attacking weaponry than some European nations at your disposal.
League One’s top scorer Sharp is now accompanied up top by the big and powerful Hanson. Fine talents in Caolan Lavery, Marc McNulty and Matty Done start on the substitutes’ bench, while recent midfield recruits Samir Carruthers and Jay O’Shea are more renowned for their ability going forwards than backwards and two wing-backs effectively play as supplementary forwards.
Hanson would have scored two more here to add to the two he scored at the ABAX for Bradford City last season, but for the skills and reactions of Posh ‘keeper Luke McGee. McGee got down superbly to keep out a low drive after a fine cutback by Sharp (Hanson muffed the rebound quite badly) in the 35th minute and kept out a point-blank header after the break.
For the rest of the time this much-improved Posh defence kept their energetic visitors at bay. The back four’s own energy levels were not helped by a failure of others to protect the ball, although the excellent Anthony Grant was an exception to that. He usually kept possession and when a pass wasn’t available he was adept at winning free-kicks, something not that difficult when a referee is as fussy as Andy Haines was in this match.
Haines might well have doled out red cards on other days to Tom Nichols and to Sharp for poor attempted tackles. Sharp’s escape was to prove far more crucial.
Nichols was part of a Posh attack that rarely even spluttered into life. McCann said poor decision-making ruined his team’s most promising moments and can add a lack of a physical presence and some poor quality to that.
Posh did play their part in a match played out at a very quick tempo, but only when Maddison let fly from 25 yards 15 minutes from time did visiting ‘keeper Simon Moore experience a difficult moment. Craig Mackail-Smith, again a willing runner here, even against three centre-backs, came closest to that elusive 100th Posh goal with a back-heel when a cross/shot from substitute Junior Morias was about to flash by him.
Instead Posh failed to win at home for the 10th time in 15 matches this season, a poor statistic they need to start putting right when Shrewsbury visit the ABAX on Tuesday (February 14).
That won’t be easy, especially as the crowd size is likely to plummet from today’s seasonal high, to one that might struggle to reach 4,000. The Shrews’ win at second-placed Scunthorpe today also moved them to the top of League One’s current form table, based on the last six matches.
Posh: Luke McGee, Michael Smith, Jerome Binnom-Williams, Dominic Ball, Ryan Tafazolli, Anthony Grant, Brad Inman (sub Martin Samuelsen, 87 mins), Gwion Edwards (sub Chris Forrester, 61 mins), Marcus Maddison, Tom Nichols (sub Junior Morias, 62 mins), Craig Mackail-Smith. Unused substitutes: Jack Baldwin, Lee Angol, Andrew Hughes, Mark Tyler.
Sheffield United: Simon Moore, Kieron Freeman, Jack O’Connell, Chris Basham, Jake Wright, Daniel Lafferty (sub, Caolan Lavery, 79 mins), John Fleck, Samir Carruthers (sub Joe Riley, 87 mins), Mark Duffy (sub Jay O’Shea, 61 mins), Billy Sharp, James Hanson. Unused substitutes; James Wilson, Matt Done, George Long, Marc McNulty.
Goal: Sheff Utd - Sharp (86 mins).
Cautions: Posh - Nichols (foul), Edwards (foul).
Sheff Utd - Carruthers (foul), Sharp (foul).
Referee: Andy Haines 5
Attendance: 10,258 (3,930 Sheffield United).