MATCH REPORT: Hartlepool 1 Sheffield United 2

Danger man: Strike ace Dave Kitson powers in the crucial header for United as they saw off Hartlepool last night.      pictures: martyn harrison
Danger man: Strike ace Dave Kitson powers in the crucial header for United as they saw off Hartlepool last night. pictures: martyn harrison
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IT is still far too early in the campaign to speak of six-pointers or season-defining fixtures.

But Sheffield United issued an ominous statement of intent with this gritty, gutsy victory at Victoria Park.

Against a Hartlepool side supposedly low on confidence and even lower on results, Dave Kitson’s first-half goal should have built the platform for a resounding win.

Predictably, United received yet another reminder that their status as pre-season promotion favourites counts for little in this notoriously unpredictable division when Steve Howard’s first league goal since November 2010 briefly clawed the hosts back on level terms.

However, despite riding their luck, United also retained their resolve and secured a dramatic last-gasp win when Paul Gallagher pounced with barely two minutes left.

It illustrated once again that, while there were question marks about some aspects of this performance, the determination and spirit of Wilson’s squad is definitely not in doubt.

Kitson has wasted little time illustrating the wisdom of the decision to acquire his services on a short-term contract.

The header which broke the deadlock here embellished another commanding display which saw him buffet a succession of markers this way and that while also demonstrating the deftness of touch which was once such a sought-after commodity in the top-flight.

Neale Cooper, Wilson’s counterpart, described watching his team as “torture” after defeat by fellow strugglers Colchester saw them plummet into the bottom four ahead of kick-off.

As imposing a figure in the dressing room as he was on the pitch, the former Aberdeen midfielder’s outburst provoked the desired response if not result.

With Gallagher declared fit despite a niggling hamstring complaint, United started purposefully.

Soon, though, they were being required to demonstrate they boast guts as well as guile with Cooper’s charges - and James Poole in particular - enjoying several sustained periods of strong pressure.

Hartlepool, whose porous defence had prompted Cooper’s remarkable outburst on the eve of this match, reshuffled their back four in response to that disappointing reverse at the Weston Homes Community Stadium three days earlier.

Captain Sam Collins was the highest profile victim of Cooper’s cull with Jack Baldwin asked to anchor a rearguard also bolstered by the return of Neil Austin following a sabbatical in midfield.

Baldwin, signed from Faversham Town 15 months ago, has flourished since being plucked from the relative obscurity of the Ryman League.

The teenager, whose aerial prowess was immediately tested when Tony McMahon launched a searching cross towards Kitson, underlined why so many observers in the North-east are convinced he is destined for a bright future in the game with an assured if not entirely faultless display.

Despite being at the opposite end of his career, Kitson has also made his presence felt after entering the third tier of English football.

The vastly-experienced centre-forward announced his arrival here with a deft shot on the turn which whistled just past the foot of Scott Flinders’ far post.

Although Andy Monkhouse replied with a speculative long-range effort, United controlled possession without making any real inroads until Kitson pounced 18 minutes before the interval.

Hartlepool, however, were far from the busted flush some had predicted.

Antony Sweeney, cited by Wilson as one of several threats to United’s unbeaten run, wasted the first of three glorious opportunities to score moments after being felled by Harry Maguire on the touchline while Mark Howard collected bravely under pressure from Monkhouse midway through the opening period.

Indeed, with Poole testing his reflexes again during the hosts’ next drive forward, Howard had been by far the busier of the two goalkeepers before McMahon fashioned the chance which Kitson emphatically converted.

If United had hoped his dramatic intervention would break Hartlepool’s spirit, then they were sorely mistaken.

Sweeney, whose header against the crossbar later came within a whisker of being touched home by Stephen Howard, failed to connect with a pass from the former Leicester City marksman while Monkhouse inexplicably failed to hit the target from point-blank range.

If Hartlepool felt aggrieved to be trailing at the break, their temperament was tested further when Poole miscued immediately after the re-start.

The youngster redeemed himself with a fierce drive during another period of pressure but again the ball flew wide.

United, who later introduced John Cofie at Nick Blackman’s expense, grew increasingly ragged as the evening progressed and saw their lead wiped out when Howard beat his namesake from a tight angle.

Substitute Richard Cresswell came agonisingly close to meeting Matt Hill’s cross.

But then Gallagher made no mistake when he caressed a perfectly-executed shot beyond Flinders following Ryan Flynn’s centre to send the Blades’ travelling fans into raptures.

HARTLEPOOL: Flinders 6, Austin 7, Baldwin 7, Hartley 7, Holden 6, Franks 6, Murray 6, Sweeney 7, Monkhouse 6, Poole 7 (James 72), S Howard 6. Not used: Humphreys, S Collins, Horwood, Richards, Lynch, McHugh.

SHEFFIELD UNITED: M Howard 6, Maguire 7, Hill 6, Flynn 6, Doyle 6, Blackman 6 (Cofie 61), McDonald 6, Kitson 7 (Cresswell 80), N Collins 7, Gallagher 6, McMahon 6. Not used: Westlake, Porter, McAllister, Long, Williams.

Cautions: Maguire (20), Gallagher (78), Doyle (80), McMahon (83), all Sheffield United.