Quite how Sheffield United, conquerers of Fulham and Aston Villa en route to this season’s FA Cup quarter-finals, have found themselves embroiled in a League One relegation battle is a mystery capable of taxing football’s greatest minds.
After all, if the likes of Scott Parker and Christian Benteke can be put to the sword, then Stevenage and Colchester should be absolutely no problem, right?
Wrong. Nigel Clough’s players arrived at the Weston Homes Community Stadium last night knowing that defeat could once again leave them perilously close to the bottom four.
A handful of brief scares apart, they never looked likely to suffer that fate with substitute Chris Porter’s late penalty propelling United to a sixth successive win for the first time since April 2012 and putting further daylight between themselves and the dangerzone.
United, now 12th in the table, will have felt aggreived not to have put the contest to bed long before Porter scored his eighth of the campaign and third in as many outings.
Indeed, Clough’s side appeared a little too secure as they dictated events against opponents fighting to preserve their third tier status under the stewardship of Joe Dunne.
Harry Maguire’s surging run forward, which saw him power fully 30 yards upfield before being halted by Tom Eastman’s brave block, suggested Clough had made exactly the same point during the interval.
Jose Baxter struck the foot of a post as United attempted to force the issue while only Sam Walker’s heroics prevented Ben Davies from marking his full debut with a goal soon after.
The Liverpudluian was also involved in the passage of play which revealed why United were forced to wait until the 87th minute before forcing the breakthrough when a combination of superb vision and immaculate technique enabled him to send John Brayford scampering though only for the usually faultless defender to badly miscue.
Despite keeping Colchester at arm’s length for the majority of the match - Mark Howard has now conceded just once in nearly 10 hours of football - watching a series of promising positions go begging proved a frustrating experience for United’s coaching staff until Porter’s dramatic intervention following a trip on Davies.
It reveals much about the size of the hole United dug themselves into that, despite returning to the stadium where their FA Cup adventure began and being unbeaten since February 1, Clough’s charges started the evening only three points above the bottom four.
Jamie Murphy, who has been in exhilarating form of late, began in ominous fashion here. One such raid, in the 12th minute, should have presented Stefan Scougall, another astute purchase from north of the border, with a clear-cut opportunity to score. Instead, much to Clough’s chagrin, David Wright had read Murphy’s intentions and cut out his pass.
It proved to be a brief respite for Colchester as Baxter saw a first time effort deflected behind for a corner before another surging run, again from Murphy, ended with him sending an angled attempt just wide. United were superior in terms of territory and possession but, inevitably, Colchester enjoyed some openings of their own.
Colchester’s defending became increasing desperate as the evening progressed with Dominic Vose heading clear at the far post as Conor Coady, whose loan from Liverpool was extended until the end of the season yesterday, lurked beneath Baxter’s looping centre.
Michael Doyle, who had earlier joined Dickson in referee Graham Scott’s notebook, was responsible for forging the 61st minute opening which saw Baxter’s perfectly weighted shot beat Walker but not the far post. That was the signal for United to turn the screw with the Colchester goalkeeper producing a wonderful save to deny Davies moments later.
Brayford, who had squared for his colleague, was wheeling away in celebration when Davies adjusted his body position and attempted to divert the ball home but Walker had other ideas and somehow scrambled it to safety.
Porter had barely broken sweat when Davies tempted Freddie Sears into the foul which enabled him to slide home and confirm United’s renaissance under Clough.
COLCHESTER UNITED: Walker 7, Wright 6, Dickson 6, Okuonghae 7, Morrison 6 (Eastmond 46, 6), Sears 6, Bean 6, Ibhere 7, Eastman 6, Wilson 6 (Sesay 46, 6), Vose 6. Not used: Cousins, Massey, Sanderson, Olufemi, Bonne.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Harris 7, Brayford 7, Maguire 7, Doyle 7, Baxter 7 (Porter 83), Collins 7, Coady 6, Scougall 6, Davies 6 (Hill 88), Murphy 7 (Flynn 80). Not used: Miller, Paynter, Long, Kennedy.
GOALS: Porter (87)
CAUTIONS: Dickson (39), Doyle (40)
RED CARDS: None
referee: Graham Scott (Oxon)