Nigel Clough’s obsession with accumulating the 50 points he believes should be enough to guarantee Sheffield United’s League One survival this term reveals much about his priorities since taking charge at Bramall Lane.
Not next month’s FA Cup semi-final against Hull City at Wembley or the chance to rub shoulders with some of Europe’s greatest names. Instead Clough, whose team surpassed that target last night, has placed a return to the Championship at the top of his ‘to-do’ list with this result ensuring their hopes of qualifying for the end of season play-offs remain very much alive.
Conor Coady was responsible for providing the goals which condemned Crawley Town to a second consecutive defeat.
But Jamie Murphy, an irresistible presence on the wing, could claim to be the true architect of the visitors’ latest success while United, who have now conceded only twice in exactly 17 hours of football, also excelled in defence.
Crawley enjoyed plenty of possession but, several notable exceptions apart, mostly in areas where they were unlikely to fashion a clear cut opportunity.
Murphy’s aggressive running and ability to pick a pass ensured United had no such problem prising apart the opposition with Coady twice profiting from his colleague’s quick-thinking and razor sharp turn of pace.
Indeed, had Kieron Freeman not been denied what appeared a cast-iron penalty during the closing stages, then their margin of victory could well have been greater.
Coady’s first - a powerful drive after Murphy and Chris Porter had combined - laid the foundations for a win which lifts Clough’s charges to 10th in the table and cuts the gap between themselves and sixth-placed Peterborough to seven points.
His second - and sixth since joining on loan from Liverpool - was a perfectly executed finish and prompted Clough to insist he is capable of reaching double figures before the end of the campaign.
United are a very different proposition to the one Crawley encountered in South Yorkshire five months ago. Then, under the tutelage of Clough’s predecessor David Weir, they were averaging less than a point per game. Thirty-five matches and a near three fold increase in that figure later, United would have arrived at the Checkatrade.com Stadium sixth in the table if only results since that 1-1 draw counted towards the rankings.
Nevertheless, as Clough intimated following Saturday’s meeting with Wolves, they remain far from the finished article.
Despite winning 10 of their previous 12 outings, events against Kenny Jackett’s side underlined the benefits of an attack capable of turning even the slightest chance into a goal.
With that in mind, Clough is likely to have cast an envious glance in the direction of his opposite number whose decision to sign Matt Tubbs, scorer of seven goals in 10 outings, has proved inspired.
Billy Clarke, who made six appearances for United during a spell on loan from Blackpool three seasons ago, is another player Clough is known to admire.
With his contract set to expire this summer, the Irishman is believed to view a return to Bramall Lane as a serious possibility should a new deal in west Sussex fail to materialise.
United’s success in recent weeks, however, has been built on an almost impenetrable rearguard and Clarke was a peripheral figure for long periods of a contest which contained some fine passages of play.
Mark Howard produced a wonderful reaction save to deny Kyle McFadzean as early as the third minute when the Crawley defender met a third minute set-piece with a glancing header before smothering at the feet of Tubbs following Clarke’s deft chip.
Although the hosts passed the ball with greater purpose early on, United were the first to find the back of the net when Porter touched Jamie Murphy’s centre into the path of Coady who duly powered home beyond a helpless Paul Jones.
Andy Drury, went close soon after but the former England under-20 midfielder’s intervention changed the complexion of the contest. Porter grew in stature as the half progressed while Murphy continued to torment Mark Connolly along United’s left flank.
Freeman also posed a threat and dovetailed well with the flying Scot but was required to prevent Clarke from darting through soon after the re-start.
Clough was in charge of the County team, including Brayford and Porter, famously knocked-out of the FA Cup here three years ago.
This visit, however, was destined to be a much more enjoyable experience.
Howard excelled himself again by toe-poking Drury’s angled drive away to safety after Porter had gone close at the other end but Coady was not to be denied and extended United’s advantage with a memorable first-time shot.
Again Murphy, twisting and turning beyond his marker, was the provider.
McFadzean and substitute Jamie Proctor drew two more fine stops from Howard while Ben Davies flashed just wide of Jones’ far post before Clough, who saw Maguire collect the caution which triggers an automatic suspension, handed debuts to Connor Dimaio and Otis Khan.