Marlon King eased the pressure on Sheffield United manager David Weir by scoring his first goal for the club last night.
The decision to sign King, whose off the pitch indiscretions have attracted unsavoury headlines in recent years, provoked much debate on the terraces at Bramall Lane when it was announced two weeks ago. But whatever the doubts about his character, the Jamaica international’s prowess in the opposition penalty box is beyond dispute.
And, just as United teetered on the brink of what would have been a seventh consecutive League One defeat, King drew on every ounce of knowledge and experience acquired throughout a controversial career to secure what, for Weir, could prove to be an significant point and end a near seven hour wait for a goal.
Crawley, now unbeaten in six outings, had barely worked up a sweat before breaking the deadlock courtesy of Jamie Proctor’s header and United sensed the luck was against them when Tony McMahon hit the woodwork with a fierce 30 yard shot.
But King had other ideas and demonstrated exactly why Weir opted to secure his services by guiding the ball home from 10 yards.
Only a fine save from Paul Jones prevented Conor Coady from scoring a second as Town were pegged towards the end of a nervous contest which continued to balance on a knife-edge until the final whistle.
United had been active in the transfer market ahead of kick-off with two new faces arriving and Chris Porter joining Chesterfield on loan. One of those additions, Manchester City youngster Harry Bunn, failed to appear despite extending his temporary contract but Simon Lappin was parachuted straight into the starting 11.
The Cardiff City full-back, who is scheduled to spend at least a month with Weir’s squad, was preferred to Matt Hill as the former Scotland international made just one change to the team beaten by Wolverhampton Wanderers seven days ago.
Weir has been at pains to highlight the number of changes he has implemented since being appointed four months ago, insisting that process was always going to have an impact upon results.
The most obvious of those has been to remodel the strike force he inherited from predecessor Danny Wilson, with Porter the most high-profile victim of that purge.
His replacement, former Birmingham City and Wigan Athletic marksman King, has furnished United with a greater presence in attack.
Nevertheless, despite their parlous returns in front of goal, the hosts’ rearguard has also come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks and the ease with which Town took a 10th minute lead will have set alarm bells ringing on the home bench.
Billy Clarke exchanged passes with Andy Drury and when the former Ipswich winger swept a lofted pass towards George Long’s far post, Proctor was left with the simple task of turning home into an empty net.
Having earlier seen Jose Baxter threaten to wriggle his way through Town’s defence and Ryan Hall test Paul Jones’ handling with an early free-kick, the sight of Proctor edging the visitors ahead inevitably gnawed away at United’s already brittle confidence.
A series of well-worked set-pieces continued to wreak havoc in front of Long and there were howls of derision from the home crowd when Matt Sadler, evading Hall, wasted a glorious opportunity to extend Town’s advantage.
The mood was turning sour on the touchline too with Weir and Barker involved in a feisty exchange of words midway through the opening period.
Hall attempted to wrestle back the initiative with a driving run only to be crowded-out on the edge of the area, McMahon continued to probe down the flank and Neill Collins glanced wide from a corner as Weir and assistants Lee Carsley and Adam Owen waved United forward.
Florent Cuvelier’s departure through injury saw Coady entered the fray during the closing stages of the first-half and the youngster
announced his return to the action by setting in motion the chain of events which saw King open his United account just after the hour.
Proctor went close again as Town continued to threaten on the counter-attack before Febien Brandy warmed Paul Jones’ gloves with a speculative long-range drive.
Clarke, who enjoyed a brief spell with United before heading south, replied in kind soon after the re-start while Michael Doyle saw a shot deflected behind for a corner which was comfortably gathered.
But it was McMahon, displaying a sense of urgency which brought the natives back on side, who went closest to restoring parity when only the width of a post denied him what would have been a spectacular equaliser.
United, though, were not to be denied and King swept a clinical finish beyond the advancing Paul Jones after Brandy embellished Coady’s pass with a delightful through ball.
Substitute Lyle Taylor flashed a snap-shot wide after combining with King soon after and Coady went close six minutes from time.
But United were indebted to Harry Maguire for executing a superbly timed tackle to thwart Clarke as the Town striker attempted to charge through.