ONE of Sheffield United’s most workmanlike performances of the season delivered - to quote Danny Wilson - arguably their “biggest” result so far.
Despite the visitors’ reputation as League One’s great entertainers, circumstances conspired to persuade their manager that industry rather than invention would be the order of the day at Victoria Park.
His team obliged with a display which, although unlikely to capture the imagination of the purists, proved they possess substance as well as style.
Although Hartlepool will justifiably feel aggrieved not to have taken
something from this match - Antony Sweeney
wasting a glorious opportunity to snatch a point deep into
added time - Wilson is interested in final outcomes rather than arguments and aesthetics.
Harry Maguire, whose presence at the heart of defence helped United to keep the clean sheet which saw them return to second in the table after a resurgent Sheffield Wednesday had briefly dislodged
them earlier that afternoon, echoed those sentiments, saying: “That’s a massive three points for us because we really had to grind out the win.
“That’s what champions are
made of and that’s what we are trying to be.
“The conditions were difficult because there was a lot of wind and the pitch was bobbly.
“We had to change things around and mix it up a little bit but, in fairness, we’ve been doing that all season.
“You can see we were right to do that because we’ve come away with the points.”
Maguire, recalled to the starting 11 after recovering from a virus, added: “To come straight back in after the lads beat Chesterfield so well last time out (4-1) shows the manager has got confidence
in me and that fills me with confidence too.
“But I know that if I don’t play well then I’ll get dropped because there are a lot of good players here.
“Defensively I thought we did really well as a unit.
“We were solid and didn’t really give them a sniff until right at the end.”
No side with a coach nicknamed ’Godzilla’ can afford to rest on its laurels and Neale Cooper’s players fought like Trojans, with Peter Hartley’s late show of pet
ulance - which earned him a second yellow card during the closing stages - their only black mark.
Neil Austin flung himself in front of Stephen Quinn’s shot with the scores still level while goalkeeper Scott Flinders did well to foil Richard Cresswell at the near post.
Predictably though it was Ched Evans who produced the contest’s defining moment towards the end of the second half when, having been impeded by Hartlepool captain Sam Collins, he recovered to claim his 31st strike of the campaign, from the spot.
Both Cooper and Collins questioned referee Carl Boyeson’s interpretation of events following the final whistle but there was no doubt about the Wales international’s finish, with Flinders powerless to prevent the ball tearing into the back of his net.
Maguire, who had earlier seen his own shout for a penalty ignored by the officials, said: “Ched is absolutely flying. He’s a great player with a great talent and I’m sure he’ll score many more.”
Wilson, who has won plaudits for transforming United’s style of play since being appointed nearly one year ago, spent 30 months in charge of Hartlepool earlier in his career.
With concerns about the stadium’s usually pristine playing surface prompting a change of approach, Wilson’s charges initially lacked rhythm as their opponents hustled and harried.
Indeed, with the lively Ryan Noble dragging wide during the early exchanges and former United youngster Evan Horwood making hard yards down the flanks, it was Hartlepool who created better openings before the break.
However, with Maguire and fellow central defender Neill Collins keeping them at arm’s length until Noble’s looping effort drew a fine save from Steve Simonsen just past the hour, United saw Cresswell and substitute Michael O’Halloran unleash attempts before Evans was hauled down.
“Players like the boy, Evans, can make the difference to your season,” Cooper acknowledged.
“But I really couldn’t have asked any more of my team.
“They gave absolutely anything against one of the best two sides in the division.”
Hartley, already cautioned just before the hour, reacted angrily when he was adjudged to have fouled O’Halloran and was duly dismissed for dissent.
But Hartlepool recovered, with Sweeney shooting wide after Austin’s long throw had pierced United’s rearguard.
“There’s a lot of work to do yet,” said Maguire. “But all we are doing is taking it one step at a time and concentrating on ourselves rather than looking at others.
“We know that if we win six out of our final six then we’ll get promoted.”