Sheffield United climbed above Bristol City in the League One standings with a 1-0 victory at Ashton Gate.
The outcome was never going to decide where either club will finish in the League One table come the end of the season. But, as both Bristol City and Sheffield United recognised, it could help colour events between now and May.
“It’s a really big game for both of us,” Cunningham, the City defender, acknowledged. “They say things are never won or lost by Christmas but we are still trying to bridge that gap between where we are and where we want to be.”
The opening exchanges were, predictably, pretty tentative stuff with passes being sprayed across the pitch without any discernible cutting edge or convinction.
That, of course, suited United better than their opponents. Taylor and Porter showed signs of developing a partnership in attack when the latter latched onto the former Falkirk marksman’s header before eventually being crowded-out.
Then, midway through the half, Lappin swept a free-kick towards Parish’s far post but neither Maguire nor Collins could connect.
Collins, featuring at centre-half despite being burdened by injury, warned United had reached a crossroads in their season during the visitors’ pre-match media briefing.
Having won two and lost two of their previous four outings under Clough’s tutelage, they journeyed south searching for a first success in the competition away from home since beating Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park in March.
Maguire was cautioned in the 20th minute after lunging into a venemous challenge on Cunningham and, from the resulting set-piece, Emmanuel-Thomas drilled well wide.
Porter and Taylor combined again soon after but Coady’s attempted centre from the flank was blocked.
City began to excert some pressure as the half hour mark approached with Emmanuel-Thomas and Pack looking to burrow their way through the massed ranks of United’s rearguard.
Shorey swept a 30th minute free-kick over the wall but the ball was comfortably gathered by Long. Likewise at the other end when Parish collected McMahon’s curling attempt.
Thirty-nine minutes had passed when the match produced its first chance of note. Baldock should have scored after beating the off-side trap but Long, calculating his angles to perfection, scrambled clear.
Wagstaff, who would have been left with a simple tap-in had his captain elected to square, was not amused.
And neither was Clough, given the ease with which Baldock had darted through.
Coady joined Maguire in referee Stroud’s notebook after tangling with Cunningham as a lacklustre half meandered to a close.
Maguire, United’s leading goalscorer so far this term, directed a headed wide when Lappin swept a free-kick from the touchline into City’s penalty area when the action resumed.
Parish made a hash of a routine clearance soon after but, as the ball bounced towards the half way line, it just evaded McGinn who had already checked how far the goalkeeper was off his line.
In the 53rd minute, Coady powered through the middle but, with McMahon advancing on the overlap, elected to shoot and fired high and wide. The 914 United supporters behind Parish’s net continued to make themselves heard and Taylor blazed off target from long-range as space opened up in front of him before, in the 62nd minute, being replaced by Baxter.
Collins showed his bravery by heading a free-kick away from Elliott while Maguire prevented Emmanuel-Thomas’ delivery from reaching Long as City, who had previously failed to gather any momentum, began to do exactly that.
Clough, cutting an animated figure on the touchline, made his displeasure known as decisions were increasingly awarded against his players. But he was dancing around with delight in the 77th minute when United took the lead. Coady and Cunningham collided and, as City appealed for a foul, McMahon scampered to the byline and crossed.FLINT, facing his own goal, could not adjust his feet and duly turned the ball into his own net.
In the 89th, Osborne thought he had equalised from Wagstaff’s corner but the ‘goal’ was disallowed for a foul on Long who had ventured into a crowd attempting to punch clear.
United, who now leapfrog City in the rankings, celebrated and the home fans booed when Stroud blew for full time.