BILLY Clarke’s attacking master class inspired Sheffield United to this crucial victory over MK Dons.
The centre-forward, on loan from Blackpool, delved deep in to his box of tricks as Danny Wilson’s men beat their fellow Championship hopefuls.
Although Clarke did not claim the goal his efforts deserved, he emerged as the architect of this triumph with assists for Richard Cresswell and fellow loanee Matt Phillips either side of the interval.
His contribution was one of the major differences between two teams who showed brains as well as brawn can prosper in the third tier.
Wilson will have been thrilled by the sight of Stephen Quinn and Clarke effortlessly exchanging passes to send Richard Cresswell scampering through for his fifth of the campaign after 22 minutes.
But the delightful piece of skill Clarke produced to create Phillips’ decisive second after Stephen Gleeson had levelled will be the abiding memory.
Wilson’s decision to hand George Long only his fourth start had dominated the agenda before kick-off.
With Steve Simonsen judged to be in no fit psychological state to appear after a series of errors in recent weeks, the teenage goalkeeper was thrust in to the limelight. Although the visitors failed to scrutinise his competency in the air, Long was powerless to stop Gleeson from equalising after the re-start.
But Clarke turned creator again to present fellow loanee Phillips with the opportunity to restore United’s lead before MK Dons’ Adam Smith was dismissed after receiving a second yellow card.
Last night’s visitors are one of seven clubs Wilson has taken charge of during his career.
What the present incumbent at Stadium:mk, Karl Robinson, lacks in experience he more than makes up for in terms of experience.
Both the youngest manager in the Football League (30) and youngest person ever to acquire a UEFA Pro Licence (29), the Liverpudlian’s stock has risen since replacing Paul Ince nearly 18 months ago.
But, as Robinson and Wilson will acknowledge, matches are decided by performances and players.
Not baubles and badges.
Despite being tipped to contest a promotion place, neither United nor their opponents arrived at Bramall Lane in sparkling form.
Fifth and sixth in the division respectively beforehand, they nevertheless boasted only two wins between them in the competition this month.
United, though, started the evening unbeaten in their previous three outings and stretched that run to four after surviving MK Dons’ late flurry. With only a dead-rubber at Swansea and two Johnstone’s Paint Trophy ties to his name, Long will have been viewed as a potential weak in United’s armoury by Robinson and his side. However, it was not until Jabo Ibehre flashed just wide that he faced any real pressure.
By then Clarke, again preferred to Ched Evans, had already tested David Martin and Marcus Williams produced an ambitious long-distance shot.
Harry Maguire, who like Long rose to prominence by helping United reach May’s FA Youth Cup final, came within a whisker of turning home Quinn’s free-kick after Adam Smith escaped with a caution for hauling down the United midfielder.
Only a superb block from Williams prevented Gleeson from opening the scoring as MK Dons launched the first of what was to prove several incisive counter-attacks.
But Quinn and Clarke combined in delightful fashion to carve-open MK Dons’ defence and pave the way for Cresswell to pounce midway through the first period. Phillips should have doubled United’s advantage soon after when Quinn again made inroads but shot straight at Martin.
Gleeson punished his profligacy with a well-placed 52nd minute strike following Ibehre’s show of strength on the edge of the penalty area.
Phillips converted for the third time in United colours after his Bloomfield Road colleague Clarke wreaked havoc on the by-line.