The promotion party failed to materialise but Sheffield United moved another step closer towards their long-awaited return to the Championship.
A hard-fought but deserved victory over Coventry City ensured Chris Wilder’s players fulfilled their side of the bargain by securing the result which could, had Fleetwood Town not beaten Oxford, have guaranteed a top two finish and ended nearly six years of hurt.
Although Uwe Rosler’s charges ensured the race for Championship football will continue until at least the weekend, Wilder’s frenzied celebrations after John Fleck had put the game beyond his old club’s reach confirmed the significance of the result.
Top of the table and 13 points clear of third place with only five matches remaining, it is surely a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ United, who had earlier seen Leon Clarke open the scoring, return to the second-tier.
The sight of Fleck strutting his stuff in United colours must have been a galling sight for the handful of City supporters who made the journey north. Aged just 25 and a contender for EFL divisional player of the year, the former Scotland under-21 midfielder has emerged as a driving force behind the hosts’ climb to the top of the table this term. After spending four seasons at the Ricoh Arena and, disillusioned by the visitors’ lack of direction under owners SISU, Fleck joined Wilder’s team on a free transfer during the close season and has subsequently produced the type of performances which, during his days as a young player at Rangers, drew comparisons with a young Wayne Rooney.
Although they are operating in different stratospheres, the Liverpudlian would certainly have been proud of the finish which, after Clarke had broken the deadlock, sealed the hosts’ 25th win in 37 League One outings. At this rate of progress, Fleck, whose assist ultimately helped swing the contest United’s way, could soon find himself back in the international fold.
Perhaps Wilder’s greatest achievement this season, however, has been breathing new life into players whose careers, with United at least, seemed to be going nowhere. Chris Basham, Kieron Freeman and Paul Coutts are among those to benefit from the manager’s midas touch and, until Fleck carved a wonderful opening midway through the opening period, it was the latter who dictated operations here.
James Hanson and Daniel Lafferty both profited from the midfielder’s touch and vision during the opening stages but failed to convert. Hanson, whose physical prowess had added an extra dimension to United’s attack, went close again after combining well with Fleck.
It was Wilder’s decision to introduce Clarke and Samir Carruthers midway through the second-half, however, which changed the course of this fixture. Although a series of fitness issues have condemned Clarke to the periphery of United’s squad in recent months, he repaid the 49-year-old’s patience by converting Fleck’s cross with less than 20 minutes remaining to finally break the opposition’s stubborn resistance.
Despite lifting their first piece of silverware for 30 years three days earlier and experiencing an upturn in results following Robins’ return to Warwickshire, City made the journey north in pretty dire straits. Bottom of the table and destined for relegation following a chaotic campaign, they entered the fixture 23 places and 50 points below United in the rankings. United superior quality was evident during the opening exchanges as, after Hanson had set the tone by thundering into a challenge with Chris Stokes, Coutts, Duffy and Fleck all attempted to seize control of proceedings. But, because of the prize possibly on offer, it was inevitable there would be signs of nerves too. An unusually indecisive touch from Jake Wright nearly sent Marcus Tudgay, one of four changes to the City starting eleven which beat Oxford last weekend, scampering through on goal with seven minutes gone. Earlier Coutts, usually composure personified when in possession of the ball, came within a whisker of scoring an own goal after attempting a back pass towards Simon Moore.
Gradually, however, the anxiety dissiptated and United found their rhythm. Hanson shot straight at Lee Burge after using his bodyweight to shrug-off Chris Stokes before, less than 60 seconds later, Daniel Lafferty hit the side-netting following an intricate and patient move.
Despite United’s dominance, chances remained at a premium. Billy Sharp saw an attempt blocked as Wilder’s men began the second period on the front foot. But City, their multitude of problems apart, still retain plenty of talent. Jodi Jones, the former Dangenham and Redbridge winger, shot wide after Ryan Haynes had also midjudged his angles. The visitors’ defence was breached in the 54th minute but Sharp, who wheeled away in celebration after converting Clarke’s centre, had not spotted the assistant referee’s offside flag.
City could, probably should, have taken the lead moments later but Ruben Lameiras shot straight at Moore after being allowed to burrow his way through a rearguard reshuffled following the introduction of Clarke and Carruthers.
But United punished their profligacy when first Clarke and then Fleck, whose invention had presented the substitute with the opportunity to score, edged United to within three points of promotion.
Sheffield United: Moore, O’Connell, Wright (L Clarke 52), Basham, Freeman, Lafferty, Coutts, Fleck, Duffy (Carruthers 52), Hanson, Sharp (O’Shea 79). Not used: Long, Done, Wilson, Chapman.
Coventry City: Burge, Willis (Stevenson 46), Stokes, Turnbull, Bigirimana, N Clarke, Lameiras, Jones, Tudgay, Foley, Haynes (Thomas 79). Not used: Beavon, Folivi, Rawson, Charles-Cook, Thomas, Kelly-Evans.
Referee: Ross Joyce (Teesside).