If Sheffield United’s players had any doubts that, despite sealing promotion six days earlier, Chris Wilder was desperate to win this game, they were obliterated before a ball had even been kicked in anger at Vale Park.
As the visitors’ coach prepared to pull into the stadium, once known as the Wembley of the north, their manager delivered what some interpreted as a motivational speech and others the riot act.
A result, Wilder reminded, might be impossible to guarantee. But, with a League One title still up for grabs, anything less than absolute commitment would not be tolerated.
The impromptu address inspired a performance which, despite not being United’s most accomplished of the season, was certainly among their most tenacious. More importantly, with goals from Jay O’Shea and Leon Clarke putting strugglers Port Vale to the sword before Matt Done’s late effort, it moved them 12 points clear of second-placed Bolton Wanderers with only three games remaining. If Phil Parkinson’s side fail to beat Oldham Athletic today, the race for top spot is over.
“It’s over to them now,” Wilder said. “It always has been hasn’t it? They are the ones chasing us down.
“It’s in our own hands, regardless of what happens there. They (Bolton) have got some work to do but we want to finish the season on a high. Nothing, no matter what, is going to change that.”
Vale were not short of insider knowledge with interim manager Michael Brown, his assistant David Kelly and Chris Morgan making a combined total of 493 appearances for United during their own playing careers. The trouble, for the home side at least, is that the club has changed beyond all recognition following Wilder’s appointment in May. The soft centre which meant they arrived hoping to avoid a third straight defeat inside this historic old ground has been replaced by a ruthless, vicious streak. Now unbeaten in their last 14 games and on the brink of a first championship trophy since 1982, United went about their business with a swagger Vale were powerless to combat. There were periods of resistance but, with O’Shea and Clarke both scoring the before the interval, Wilder’s charges pretty much did as they pleased until Billy Reeves tested Simon Moore’s handling.
“Credit to them (Vale), because they showed spirit and they fought,” Wilder said. “What I saw there was a team battling for Browny and Morgs. We were up for it and we had to be. But I thought the start we made gave us a real stranglehold.”
Clarke has been in such superb form since returning to action last month that it impossible not to wonder how much damage he might have inflicted upon opposition defences had his season not been plagued by injury. The volley which doubled United’s advantage, after O’Shea’s early strike, was only his sixth of the season but third in as many games. The execution oozed quality but so did the assist. Chris Basham, the man responsible for providing it, was a class apart throughout.
“The players have driven the attitude here,” Wilder said. “They’ve driven themselves on, picked themselves on when they had to and deserve everything they’ve achieved. Seriously, it all comes from them. Not us. We can’t go out there on the pitch can we? They constantly set themselves targets; to win games, to start second-halves well, to keep clean sheets and take three points.”
Forty-three points and twent-places separated these two teams at kick-off. Speaking beforehand, Wilder insisted the presence of Morgan and Brown in the opposition technical area would make this a much more awkward fixture than the table suggested. But, for once, his reading of a match proved incorrect. Less than 120 seconds had passed when O’Shea threaded the ball beneath Deniz Mehmet from the tightest of angle before Clarke extended United’s lead 28 minutes later. Both openings came thanks to Basham’s fine work along the right flank. Poor Kiko, the man Brown had detailed to track the former Blackpool midfielder’s runs, must have spent last night being treated for a bad case of twisted blood.
Vale, as you would expect of the side with Brown and Morgan in the dug-out, showed plenty of pride and passion after the break with JJ Hooper, previously of Newcastle, ensuring Jake Wright and Ethan Ebanks-Landell knew they were in a fight.
A rare defensive lapse presented substitute Reeves with a glorious opportunity to reduce the deficit just past the hour but the youngster shot tamely at Simon Moore. By the time, however, United had already enjoyed two good chances themselves with Mehmet redeeming himself after allowing O’Shea shot to slip underneath his body by denying Clarke and Done in quick succession. With Mehmet unsighted, Done ended his seven month wait for a goal by converting in added time.
“It might not have been our best display,” Wilder said. “But I thought it was one which told people a lot about our team and it’s approach.”
Port Vale: Mehmet, Purkiss (Reeves 37), Taylor, Cicilia, Hooper (Turner 77), Foley, Pugh, Kiko, Smith, Bikey, Eagles (Kelly 83). Not used: Fasan, Streete, Tanser, De Freitas.
Sheffield United: Moore, Ebanks-Landell, Wright, Basham, O’Connell, Done, Coutts, Fleck, O’Shea (Freeman 55), Sharp (Chapman 71), Clarke (McNulty 90). Not used: Long, Duffy, Lafferty, Carruthers.
Referee: Nicholas Kinseley (Essex).