Match Report: Coventry City 1 Sheffield United 0

Coventry v Blades action
Coventry v Blades action
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Steven Pressley attributed Coventry City’s victory to their “high press”.

But that was the only thing about this utterly forgettable contest, which leaves Sheffield United still searching for their first win of the new League One season, that could remotely be described as Barcelona-esque.

Despite an encouraging start for the visitors, whose manager Nigel Clough refused to pull any punches during a lengthy post-match inquest, the action quickly became every bit as confusing as a teamsheet which placed Harrison McHale, otherwise known as McGahey, at the heart of their defence.

Predictably, it was also settled by an own goal with Bob Harris turning into his own net with less than a quarter of an hour remaining.

“What we lacked was a bit of aggression,” Clough said. “You always need a bit of that and we’ve got to find some fast because, as good as we were during the first period of the first half, after that, well ...

“I lost count of the number of side-footed clearances we made, for instance. You can be a good player but you’ve got to be decisive too.

“It’s all very well being a nice lad off the pitch. That’s exactly what we want.

“But on it you’ve got to show a ruthless streak; recognise that, even if things aren’t going well, come what may you are going to take something away with you from the game.”

Both United and City, previously without a win at Sixfields Stadium since March 26, seemed more intent on showcasing their flaws rather than strengths after Ryan Allsop, on loan from Championship leaders AFC Bournemouth, produced a wonderful early save to deny Michael Higdon.

United, who included new signings Jay McEveley and Iain Turner in an 18-man squad missing both Andy Butler and Chris Porter, lacked rhythm and impetus while their opponents, irrespective of the final outcome, were industrious but naive with Jordan Clarke in particular guilty of wrecking several promising moves.

There are mitigating circumstances, of course. Clough concedes he is still fathoming how best to utilise the revamped options at his disposal while City, with Callum Wilson, Leon Clarke and Franck Moussa all departing, have lost three players responsible for scoring 54 goals last term.

There are also 44 matches of the campaign remaining, but United, who return to action against Peterborough tomorrow evening, could be about to adopt a different approach.

“We’ve lost some big players and some of the ones who did so well last season haven’t got going yet,” Clough said. “Murph (Jamie Murphy) looks like he can’t go past anyone at the moment and Flynn (Ryan Flynn) has got no run. The same goes for Scouggs (Stefan Scougall) too.

“We’ve asked them if they’re okay, if everything is all right, and they’ve told us yes.

“But the dilemma is now, do we persevere with them? It’s too soon after the match to make any decisions on selection, though, so we’ll have to wait and see.”

“People ask if we’ll put an arm around the lads’ shoulders,” Clough added. “And if that helps then that’s what we’ll do.

“But, to be honest, I think players get too much of that these days. Sometimes you’ve just got to find it in yourself.

“There is only one person out there who, through pre-season and the season itself, is really holding down his place. Only Mark Howard is nailed on, and that’s disappointing.”

Michael Higdon, edging his duel with Reda Johnson during the early skirmishes, was preparing to celebrate after meeting Ben Davies’ cross but Allsop somehow scrambled clear.

That should have been the cue for United, dominating territory and possession, to turn the screw. Instead, it appeared to spark City into life, with Howard, having earlier saved from Jim O’Brien, also excelling to claw away Danny Swanson’s curling shot.

But Howard was left horribly exposed when Harris, attempting to clear O’Brien’s goalbound effort, instead helped it home.

“I’m very proud of my players,” Coventry boss Pressley said. “With the exception of the first 10 or 15 minutes, I thought that our high press was brilliant and as things wore on we pushed them back and back.

“I don’t think that’s a game we would have won this time last year. It’s a big result for us because it’s against a team that will, absolutely, be there or thereabouts at the end of the season.

“It was a huge save from Ryan because, at that stage, Sheffield United looked very sharp. But the best way I could describe our performance is ‘professional’. That’s what I think we were.”

Higdon’s influence waned as United be came increasingly direct.

Nevertheless, despite their disappointment, it is still far too early to make accurate judgements about how the race for promotion will unfold.

Clough, who guided United from 21st to seventh in the table last season and into the semi-finals of the FA Cup, has demonstrated the ability to mould effective units at Burton Albion, Derby County and, of course, Bramall Lane.

United, who began the campaign as favourites to lift the title, inevitably remain a work in progress following a busy summer in the transfer market.

“We did our best to play down how we thought we might start the season,” Clough said. “Nobody listened, but that’s not an excuse.

“It’s simply an acknowledgement that it will take a good few weeks for us to get really going because we’re still bedding in.

“We’ve still got to be better along the way, though; make sure we get some points on the board and then look to pick the momentum up.”

Viewpoint: It is still far too early to predict how this season’s race for the Championship will unfold. But United, despite inevitably remaining a work in progress, must demonstrate better match-craft.