Goals from John Brayford, Ryan Flynn and a Jose Baxter penalty gave Sheffield United a comfortable 3-0 win over relegation rivals Bristol City at Bramall Lane.
Ranked eighteenth and seventeenth respectively ahead of kick-off, separated by virtue of the visitors’ superior goal difference rather than points, both teams knew that defeat could see them slip back into the bottom four.
However United, Clough insisted, would not be content to settle for a draw as the early exchanges, a driving run and shot from Elliott apart, proved to be cagey until Murphy set off on a trademark driving run towards the by-line and swept a looping centre across the box which only just evaded Baxter.
That was the cue for United to seize control.
Scougall has also impressed in recent weeks and, peeling off his marker in the sixth minute, came close to powering through before Flint, 60 seconds later, hacked clear off the line after Murphy had pressurised Moore into a mistake as they both hunted down an aerial ball.
City were creaking under a flurry of corners and, from another Baxter delivery, Flynn was inches away from handing United the lead but his low shot from an acute angle fizzed just past the foot of the far post.
United’s progress in recent weeks can also be attributed to a well-back four and Howard, who displaced George Long when they knocked Fulham out of the FA Cup earlier this month, began the afternoon having picked the ball out of the net just once since that dramatic fifth round replay at Craven Cottage.
When referee Scott Duncan blew for half-time, Howard had barely been called into action until he darted off his line in the 42nd minute to block Baldock’s prodded attempt after a long ball through caught his colleagues napping.
United, who had made four changes to the starting eleven which beat Gillingham in midweek, continued to turn the screw as they attacked The Kop.
In the 13th minute, Baxter clipped a looping first time pass over the top of City’s defence which Flynn, who had strayed offside, wisely allowed Scougall to chase but El-Abd crowded the young Scot out.
Then, Murphy and Flynn combined but Scougall could not connect with a header in front of Moore.
Maguire, making his 151st senior appearance, powered from the half-way line to the edge of the six yard box but, when he unleashed a powerful shot, Emmanuel-Thomas bravely blocked with his face.
United continued to dominate possession but, as the interval beckoned, City were less stretched by their attacks. Baldock, who has been in fine form of late, tested Howard’s reactions on a rare foray forward but the goalkeeper proved equal to the task.
Not so Moore who was powerless to prevent BRAYFORD firing into the roof of the net at the far post after Maguire had helped on Baxter’s 43rd minute corner.
City, aware of the occasion’s importance, began the second-half in much more positive fashion than the first. Murphy, though, won a 50th minute free-kick from Osborne after reading Harris’ intentions and chasing down a long pass along the flank. Two corners followed but the visitors dealt with both.
Three minutes later Murphy, having drifted across the pitch, was hauled back as he attempted to dart through a gap seven yards outside the box. Harris, who took the set-piece, beat the wall but not Moore who comfortably gathered next to his left post.
It was fitting that, when United did double their advantage just before the hour, it was their two best players who combined.
Murphy dashed beyond Osborne and passed across the edge of the area after cutting inside. FLYNN picked his spot and drilled low across Moore. The celebrations had barely died down when Coady nearly grabbed his third goal in as many games but, having skipped towards the by-line, he could only chip into the side-netting.
Hill, who started his career with City, entered the fray with 22 minutes remaining and Flynn received a standing ovation when he made way for Davies.
But not before, in the 69th minute, tempting the hapless Osborne into committing the foul which allowed BAXTER to extend United’s lead from the penalty spot. The Liverpudlian showed excellent composure to convert after being forced to wait for nearly a minute as City made two changes. Howard excelled with two late saves as United saw out a comfortable win.