Match Report: Sheffield United 1 Rotherham United 0

Ben Davies celebrates his goal
Ben Davies celebrates his goal
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The friendly derby? Do not believe a word.

These two clubs might have enjoyed an amicable relationship in the past but, at Bramall Lane last night, they tore into each other with the ferocity of a particularly bitter neighbourly dispute.

Indeed, such was the intensity of the action that it was a surprise it remained goalless until Ben Davies’s 89th-minute penalty ensured Sheffield United’s preparations for Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final got off to the perfect start.

The result, which deals a potentially fatal blow to Rotherham United’s hopes of securing automatic promotion, was made even sweeter for victorious manager Nigel Clough due to the fact that three products of the hosts youth system - Conor Dimaio, Otis Khan and Louis Reed - enjoyed prominent roles while Terry Kennedy, another Redtooth Academy graduate, also impressed.

Forty-three games have passed since Sheffield United’s previous meeting with their South Yorkshire rivals.

However, under Clough’s tutelage, they are now a much more formidable proposition than the side beaten 3-1 at New York Stadium in September, as their performance here proved.

Against opponents who have made phenomenal progress in the past 12 months - and remain a strong bet to end their nine-season absence from the Championship via the play-offs - Sheffield United displayed remarkable maturity to keep Steve Evans’ chargesat bay until Davies converted from the spot after Craig Morgan was deemed to have impeded Harry Maguire.

Suspicions that Clough’s priorities lay elsewhere were confirmed an hour ahead of kick-off when both teams unveiled their respective starting 11s.

Sheffield United’s contained eight alterations to the side which three days earlier had held high-flying Leyton Orient to the draw which had allowed the visitors, missing influentiual midfielder Lee Frecklington through injury, to go third in the table.

The hosts, with their showpiece against Hull City looming large on the horizon, elected to make changes for altogether different reasons given the grulling fixture schedule they have endured in recent weeks.

George Long, Matt Hill, Billy Paynter and Kennedy were among those recalled for Sheffield United’s 17th outing since February 1 while academy graduate Dimaio made his full debut.

Despite that tacit admission about the relative importance of Sheffield United’s next two games, Clough will have been delighted by the positive approach his mix-and-match squad made with Jose Baxter and Kieron Freeman both causing problems during the early skirmishes.

Stephen McGinn blazed a speculative effort over the crossbar during one such foray forward while Maguire and Baxter also went close after the break.

In the end, though, it was Davies who landed the decisive blow.

Much, it must be said to the annoyance of Clough’s counterpart, Evans, who described Mike Dean’s decision to penalise Morgan “shocking” and a “disgrace”.

Rotherham United also bristled with aggression and intent. A little too much for Clough’s liking, with Maguire and Kennedy both complaining they had been caught by stray arms within minutes of referee Dean getting proceedings under way.

Ben Pringle, handed his big break in the professional game by the United chief after joining Derby County from Ilkeston three years ago, looked to unlock a Sheffield United reaguard which has now conceded only five goals in over 22 hours of football.

Twice, Kennedy was called upon to stifle his attacking ambitions midway through the opening period and, on both occasions, the young central defender held firm.

As the interval beckoned, so Rotherham United’s influence grew.

Kieran Agard tried his luck from long range with a low drive which Hill blocked before it could trouble Long while Alex Revell later saw an attempt smothered.

Nevertheless, Sheffield United continued to maintain a level of threat, with only James Tavernier’s timely intervention preventing Baxter, peeling off the back of his marker, from meeting Freeman’s cross.

Tavernier, who immediately surged upfield before testing Long’s handling, was the architect of the move which nearly handed Rotherham United a 36th-minute lead but again the young goalkeeper proved equal to the task when Revell pounced upon his colleague’s pass.

Dean waved away Pringle’s appeals for a penalty immediately after the re-start when Davies was adjudged to have correctly controlled the ball.

Evans, in constant dialogue with the fourth official and Sheffield United bench, erupted in fury again when Tom Hitchcock and Freeman clashed inside the area moments later.

Frecklington’s absence meant Rotherham United’s play lacked the purpose which meant they had entered this contest unbeaten in 16 fixtures.

Davies’s set-piece delivery presented Maguire with an opportunity at the other end of the pitch but his header sailed over the crossbar.

Having placed youth development at the heart of his plans, Clough introduced Othis Khan, another home-grown talent, just past the hour.

Baxter’s last contribution, before the introduction of Louis Reed, was the send a first-time shot whistling just past Adam Collin’s far post.

As the final whistle beckoned, so Sheffield United demonstrated the match-craft they hope will serve them well in the capital this weekend with Paynter’s physical presence allowing Reed and Davies to make a series of peeling runs towards goal before Davies’ free-kick set in motion the chain of events which allowed him to seal a dramatic win.

GOAL: Davies (89).

SHEFFIELD UNITED: Long 7, Harris 7 (Khan 65, 7), Maguire 7, Hill 7, Baxter 7 (Reed 73), McGinn 7, Paynter 6, Davies 6, Freeman 6, Kennedy 7, Dimaio 7 (Coady 87). Not used: Brayford, Scougall, Murphy, Willis.

ROTHERHAM UNITED: Collin 6, Skarz 6, Arnason 6, Revell 7, Milsom 6 (O’Connor 52, 7), Pringle 7 (Vukic 83), Morgan 6, Agard 7, Tavernier 7, Hitchcock 6 (Thomas 73), Smallwood 6. Not used: Shearer, Brindley, Davis, Adams.

REFEREE: Mike Dean (Wirrall).

CAUTIONS: Milsom (7), Harris (40), Morgan (89).