Big games are settled by small details and this South Yorkshire skirmish, which saw Barnsley become the first team to win at Bramall Lane since the opening day of the season, hinged upon a second-half set-piece.
Sam Winnall’s header, as he evaded his marker before converting Conor Hourihane’s corner, proved the defining moment of a contest that exposed the fine margins of League One competition together with the strengths and weaknesses of these two sides.
For Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough, Saturday’s match served as another reminder that his squad must become more clinical around the opposition’s penalty area or risk seeing their undoubted potential go to waste.
Danny Wilson, meanwhile, was left to reflect on a victory of huge professional and, despite the former Northern Ireland international’s claims otherwise, personal significance too.
“It was a typical derby game and, after the run they had been on, it was always going to be a difficult game,” Wilson, returning to United for the first time since being sacked by the club 19 months ago, said. “But I felt we coped very, very well.
“We’ve been unfortunate in recent weeks and not got the rewards our efforts have deserved.
“Things were different this time, though. We took our chance when it came along and then defended for our lives.”
Wilson insisted he bears no grudge towards his former employers - “This is a great place and it was fantastic to come back. I haven’t changed my opinion on that at all” - but, as Clough had warned beforehand, history guaranteed Barnsley would go about their business with real commitment, desire and purpose.
United also demonstrated those qualities but lacked the cutting edge required to translate the catalogue of promising situations the likes of Jamie Murphy and Jose Baxter created into goals and points.
“The final ball or our play in the final third was lacking,” Clough acknowledged. “We got enough of the ball out to Murphy and (Jamal) Campbell-Ryce but we could not quite produce that killer cross.
“Then we didn’t deal with the set-piece. 95 per cent of what we did was very good.
“Someone didn’t pick up his man and we lost the game. It was one error and that’s what it can boil down to on occasions like this.”
United slip to eighth in the table but remain within a point of third-placed MK Dons and tantalisingly close to becoming a formidable team.
Winnall’s goal, which came after Craig Alcock had seen an effort clawed off the line, was the first they had conceded in nearly six hours of league action while, for the most part, the excellent Jay McEveley and Paddy McCarthy kept Barnsley at arm’s length.
Clough’s win ratio, which stands at 55.6 per cent, makes a mockery of claims they can be overly cautious.
However, as his continued pursuit of Blackpool’s Steve Davies confirms, United are still short of an experienced centre-forward. The hamstring injury which ruled Michael Higdon out of action following his brace at stadium:mk in midweek cost them dear here as Marc McNulty, a prodigious but still unpolished talent, missed an excellent opportunity to level before Ross Turnbull saved bravely at Stefan Scougall’s feet.
Higdon, who has netted four times in his previous five appearances, and McNulty, now boasting figures of five in 10, are capable of scoring heavily at this level. But, for different reasons, have yet to command regular starting berths.
“The division is very tight,” Wilson, whose side climb to 12th, said.
“The ones you would expect to be up there, the bigger clubs like Sheffield United and Bristol City, are always going to be challenging.
“They have spent and expect to be in the top six. From our point of view, we just hope to be in there. If we keep churning out results like that, we will have a chance.
“I don’t make any excuses for needing a bit of luck today because I think we have earned that.”
Barnsley, who elected to leave new loan signing Marcelo Trotta on the bench, came under concerted pressure during the early exchanges as Turnbull scrambled Alcock’s header from Baxter’s centre to safety at the second attempt before a Joe Dudgeon deflection took the power off a dangerous James Wallace shot.
Campbell-Ryce and Murphy also tested the former Chelsea goalkeeper but an interchange between Campbell-Ryce and Bob Harris, which ended with the latter’s shot being blocked by a defender, summed up perfectly both United’s shortcomings and Barnsley’s wholehearted approach.
“Our defending was outstanding,” Wilson said. “The work ethic was set by the front lads and the entire team put a shift in. The two centre-halves were terrific.”
Barnsley had struggled to forge an opening of note until Winnall, recruited from Scunthorpe during the close season, ended their 4,956-day-long wait for a win at this ground.
Mark Howard was forced to concede a corner when Devante Cole tested his reflexes with a driven shot and, from the resulting corner, United’s rearguard was breached.
“Nigel probably won’t be too happy with the marking but Sam put a great header in,” Wilson, who could celebrate his 1,000th game as a manager against Doncaster Rovers next month, continued. “I brought him here to get better and hopefully he can give us a chance to do well in this league.
“That is what Sam is, a predator.”
Had United possessed the same then it is unlikely Barnsley’s wholehearted shift would have reaped maximum rewards.
McNulty should have levelled when, after evading his marker, he met Baxter’s free-kick deep inside Turnbull’s box but instead headed over the bar. Ryan Flynn made an immediate impact after being introduced as a substitute, darting towards the byline and crossing for Scougall during the closing stages, but Turnbull proved equal to the task.
“We weren’t unhappy with the majority of what we did out there,” Clough said. “But of course, it goes without saying, there are areas where we could have done better and that we’re disappointed by the result.
“We came in to this game on the back of an excellent run, winning five of our last six matches and drawing one, but that’s now ended. So, what we’ve got to do now is pick ourselves up and build another one.”
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Alcock 7, Harris 7, Wallace 6*, Doyle 6, Murphy 7, Scougall 6, Baxter***6, McEveley 7, Campbell-Ryce** 6, McCarthy 6. Substitutes: Basham, Flynn**(81), McNulty*(58) 6, McGahey, Porter***(84), Reed, Turner.
BARNSLEY: Turnbull 7, Dudgeon 7, Berry 6, Nyatanga 7, Cranie 6, Hourihane 6, Winnall* 7, Williams 6, Ramage 7, Bailey 6, Cole** 6. Substitutes: Treacy, Hemmings*(84), Davies, M’voto, Bree**(90), Trotta, Lita.