At the sixth time of asking, Sheffield United finally to have got the hang of League One.
This result might not have been the most eye-catching of the Chris Wilder era but, given the circumstances in which it was achieved, will add further weight to the theory they are finally equipped to regain their Championship status next term.
Bristol Rovers more than played their part in a match which, despite failing to produce any goals, was not short on energy and entertainment. But, still five points clear at the top of the table, assistant manager Alan Knill admitted United were more than satisfied with their evening’s work.
“Both teams know they created chances but will probably look back on that at a decent result,” he said. “Both sets of players really went for it and dug-in when required. Looking back, I think it was a fair result.”
Speaking earlier this week, Wilder vowed to keep taking risks in a bid to secure an automatic promotion place. That bold approach clearly extends to his selection policy too with five influential players, including leading scorer Billy Sharp, named on the bench at the Memorial Stadium.
It was a gamble which, but for the width of the post which denied John Fleck a second-half goal, would have paid-off in even more handsome fashion although United were forced to survive some sustained periods of pressure as the evening progressed.
Jay O’Shea and Caolan Lavery went close as United searched for a breakthrough but, with goalkeeper Simon Moore breaking a nose during a late scramble in the area, Knill added: “That shows the grit and desire of our lads. What they are prepared to do to get to where we all want to be.”
Rovers’ physical superiority became evident the moment these two rivals emerged from the tunnel. Industry and a seemingly insatiable appetite for work have underpinned United’s achievements under Wilder but they demonstrated a sharp intelligence too by retaining possession and shifting field position in an attempt to negate this threat. It worked to a degree but meant Rovers’ defence, which had started the evening as the joint second worst in the division, had time to flood men behind the ball whenever United pressed.
Darrell Clarke’s side, who harbour ambitions of a top six finish themselves, have struggled for goals since Matty Taylor’s controversial move to Bristol City last month. The 26-year-old had been responsible for scoring exactly a third of Rovers’ efforts in the competition before being spirited away to Ashton Gate and, although Ellis Harrison and Rory Gaffney did their best, they lacked their former colleague’s punch in the penalty box. It was perhaps exactly that knowledge which persuaded the latter to try and win a penalty after bearing down on Moore just past the hour. Rather than shoot, the former Cambridge centre-forward inexplicably opted for a spot of simulation instead.
As the crowd bayed for blood, referee Kevin Johnson remained impressively unmoved. Just like United’s defence which, having recorded a third successive clean sheet, has now not been breached in over five hours of football.
Plotting a course through an already congested fixture calendar, complicated further by the rescheduling of important games, tests even the deepest of squads. With games against second-placed Scunthorpe and Bolton Wanderers in third next on the agenda, Wilder decided that a start at the Memorial Stadium was a step too far for the likes of Kieron Freeman, Mark Duffy and, most intriguingly, Sharp. With James Hanson nursing a groin problem - he is expected to recover in time for Saturday’s meeting with Graham Alexander’s side - Matt Done was handed a recall alongside full debutants O’Shea and Riley.
But with the core of United’s squad remaining the same, Wilder’s tinkering did not have a detrimental effect upon the performance of his team. Joe Lumley, who moments earlier had scrambled Joe Riley’s dangerous cross away to safety, was left horribly exposed when Lavery found O’Shea lurking on the edge of the box. But, with the goal at his mercy, the former Republic of Ireland under-21 international miscalculated his angles and inexplicably shot wide. It nearly proved a costly miss when first Gaffney and then Ollie Clarke went close for Rovers and only a perfectly timed tackle from Jake Wright stopped Ellis Harrison darting clear.
As the half progressed, United rediscovered their rhythm but failed to test Lumley’s handling until Lavery met Riley’s cross seconds before the interval.
Sharp, watching the drama unfold from the touchline, would have fancied his chances of tucking that particular chances away. But Lavery, who saw another attempt saved early in the second half, did more than enough to justify his place and in the 50th minute, he thought he had scored his fourth goal since leaving Sheffield Wednesday during the close season. Once again, however, Lumley came to the hosts’ rescue by clawing away his angled drive following a neat turn inside the penalty area. The on-loan goalkeeper was beaten when Fleck unleashed a low drive soon after but, on this occasion, the woodwork intervened.
Gaffney was fortunate to escape a caution when he jumped over Moore rather than slide the ball home after finding himself in acres of space in the 63rd minute. United also breathed a sigh of relief when Gaffney headed home before being adjudged to have strayed offside.
As the final whistle approached, Rovers went close again when Montano, whose introduction coincided with their best spell of the game, unleashed a looping shot which Moore scooped clear.