ON the ground which spawned football’s original ‘Invincibles’, an audacious finish from Dave Kitson saw Sheffield United‘s unbeaten start to the League One season reach 13 games.
Danny Wilson’s side are unlikely to emulate Preston North End’s class of 1889, who went an entire campaign without tasting defeat, but Saturday’s fixture at Deepdale exposed the qualities they believe can help them last the distance in this term’s promotion race.
Kitson’s clinical conversion - from Tony McMahon’s pass - oozed top-flight pedigree.
However, this victory, United’s sixth in the competition since August, was built on substance not style.
And it confirmed a team which once relied upon the wizardry of a few select individuals now prefers to emphasise collective strength instead.
“We’re all equals in the dressing room,” defender Marcus Williams said. “We realise the strikers are going to be the ones who get the applause. Nobody has got a problem with that.
“But, among ourselves, we know we all contribute.
“If we are strong as a back five and the two midfielders in front of us are working hard then we’re going to be good.”
Kitson, previously of Portsmouth, Reading and Stoke, underlined his commitment by volunteering for duty despite falling ill just hours before the match.
Arguably the most memorable moment of this contest, though, was George Long’s acrobatic save which denied Graham Westley’s side a last-gasp equaliser.
Fears were expressed the teenage goalkeeper lacked the experience required to cope when Mark Howard was diagnosed with a thigh injury two weeks ago.
But, since stepping into the breach, Long has been an asset rather than liability.
Clawing Paul Huntington’s header out of the air before scrambling the ball to safety will only have embellished his burgeoning reputation still further.
“Nobody here was ever worried about George,” Williams continued. “Because we work with him every day in training and know what he’s capable of.
“The manager must be pleased with him and we’re really pleased to see George playing.
“All of the lads are right behind him.”
“We’ve had a lot of experienced lads come in over the summer,” Williams added. “People like Tony (McMahon) and Matt (Hill), which has really helped, with Collo (Neill Collins) in there too.
“We can change things around a bit now in terms of how we go about our business.
“Kits’ strengths include holding the ball up. He’s not someone who likes to be running channels all day long so if he’s selected then it makes sense to get it up there to him.
“But we’ve also got people like John (Cofie) who can do that so we can change things around.”
Unuted and Preston are two of the division’s most iconic names, but history has nevertheless weighed heavily on these teams’ shoulders in recent seasons and their priority now is climbing out of England’s third tier.
Jack King, the Preston midfielder, admitted afterwards that Westley had ordered his charges to try and exploit United’s perceived lack of height.
Despite Collins’ return to fitness, Wilson preferred to start with the same back four.
His faith was rewarded as, with Hill again in commanding form, United kept their opponents at arm’s length until the Preston substitute’s attempt in added time.
“We‘re all pretty flat in the dressing room,” King acknowledged. “Fair play to them because they took their chance when it came but we didn’t really break them down.
“He’s a good keeper and it was a good save, but we’ve got to come up with more than just a header at the end.
“We know we’ve got to do a lot better than that. We know we can do better than that and we will.”
was withdrawn moments after scooping the ball beyond Thorsten Stuckmann and into the back of Preston’s net.
“It speaks volumes that he wanted to be involved despite feeling awful. But he was that bad during the interval there was no way he could carry on,” Wilson, predicting Kitson should recover in time for
tomorrow’s visit of Walsall, said.
Harry Maguire had earlier failed to covert Ryan Flynn’s free-kick before Preston’s John Welsh and Chris Beardsley also fluffed their lines
As the action became increasingly stretched, Hill intervened to prevent Nicky Wroe releasing Stuart Beavon while Jeffrey Monakana and Beardsley both tried their luck from range.
Chris Robertson was fortunate to escape with a yellow after hauling down Shaun Miller after the United attacker had stepped off the bench.
“The important thing for us is how hard everyone is working behind the scenes,” Williams said. “Not just the lads in the team but also the ones who are trying to get into the team too.
“Everyone is putting so much into training.
“There’s competition for places, everyone wants to be playing and that drives everyone on.
“Apart from one or two occasions that we’ve been disappointed with, I think we’re looking really solid at the moment and we need to carry that on.”