Sheffield United match verdict: Blades 1 Bristol City 2

Michael Higdon scores
Michael Higdon scores
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It is a journey which will last over 69 hours and see them travel 4,542 miles.

So Michael Higdon was speaking with plenty of justification when he insisted it would be foolish to make any sweeping assumptions about Sheffield United’s prospects this season after one false step.

Nevertheless, Saturday’s contest also confirmed suspicions that United remain a work in progress.

“We could, probably should, have been three or four up at half-time,” Higdon, among six debutants in Nigel Clough’s squad, said. “But then we fell a little bit flat and that cost us.

“As disappointed as were are, though, this is only the first game and, even if we’d have got the result we’d wanted I’d still be telling you the same thing: that nothing is decided at this stage.

“Yes, there are lots of areas where we can improve and that’s only normal. But, at the same time, there was a lot that happened which I’m really encouraged and pleased about.”

Higdon marked his first appearance for United by scoring the goal which, after Aaron Wilbraham had edged the Bristol City in front, should have provided a platform for the hosts to claim a share of the spoils until Wade Elliott pounced during the closing stages.

Recruited from NEC Nijmegen earlier in the week, the former Motherwell marksman went about his business with a conviction and purpose which, if translated over the course of an entire campaign, will guarantee double-figure returns while fellow new signing Craig Alcock impressed at the heart of a rearguard missing Andy Butler and Neill Collins who was named on the bench.

“I’ve been told that was my first goal in England for seven years,” Higdon, who started his career at Crewe Alexandra before heading to Scotland, said. “But that’s only because I’ve been away for so long.

“In any case, it doesn’t matter where you are or what country you’re playing in. The goals are the same, the pitch is the same and the rules are the same.

“When I was up there (in Scotland) I had plenty of chances to come back down here but my family were settled, my kids were at school and I was happy. It’s not always about the finance.

“But the opportunity to come here, to play for a club like this and step out on to the pitch in front of 20,000 people was one I felt proud to be given and couldn’t turn down. It’s one that I aim to grasp with both hands.

“I’ve had a good week of training and, from a confidence point of view, it felt great to get off the mark. We created lots and lots of chances and created enough positions to have taken something away from the game.”

Nevertheless, United’s new -ound attacking threat seems to have come at a price with a defence which kept 17 clean sheets in the competition last term now far more vulnerable to the counter-attack, as Elliott demonstrated when he applied the finishing touches to a delightful but simple move instigated by Derrick Williams and embellished by the impressive Wilbraham.

Clough cited pre-season performances as the reason behind his decision to omit Collins and captain Michael Doyle from his starting 11. But, having raised concerns about the number of preventable goals United had conceded during their warm-up fixtures, he will not have relished the sight of them twice being undone, lthough the contributions of Higdon, Alcock and 17-year-old Louis Reed, preferred to Doyle in midfield, provided comfort.

Establishing better lines of communication will feature prominently on Clough’s agenda before Wednesday’s Capital One Cup tie against Mansfield Town.

“We had a lot of lads out there playing their first game for the club,” Higdon, handed the armband in Doyle’s absence, said. “It’s always going to take time before you get completely up to speed.

“There were a few things I could have done better because some of the crosses that were coming in from people like Ben (Davies) and Jamie (Murphy) were excellent.

“But, as we work together even more, I’ll start reading those better and getting on the end of them more often. The only way you get that total understanding is through time.”

City arrived without a win at Bramall Lane for 57 years and so it was typical that Elliott, scorer of the goal which denied United during 2009’s Championship play-off final against Burnley, delivered their first since Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister.

However, despite Steve Cotterill’s barely-concealed delight, the City boss also acknowledged there is still plenty of work to be done before the visitors can truly fulfil their potential.

Wilbraham looks an astute acquisition while Sam Baldock’s movement posed a constant threat.

But the defensive frailties which often undermined their efforts during 2013/14 - when they recorded League One’s lowest number of clean sheets - were exposed on numerous occasions by Higdon’s presence.

Only Williams’ intervention prevented Murphy, who twice saw shots cleared off the line by Aden Flint, from finding his former Motherwell teammate during the early skirmishes while the centre-forward was close to charging down Frank Fielding’s clearance when the score remained deadlocked.

“We’ll celebrate on the bus with a nice cup of tea on the way home,” Cotterill said. “Make no mistake, this is a tough place to come.

“Sheffield United, on that evidence, will be there or thereabouts at the end of the season because they are a damn good side with a damn good manager.

“The first 45 (minutes) was tough for us but then I thought we came on and looked fit and strong. The experienced players out there were excellent.”

United, who also saw Ryan Flynn and Bob Harris go close before the interval, paid the price for a stale second half.

City, now far more effective at stopping the hosts overloading along the flanks, wrestled back the momentum with Baldock and Luke Freeman both testing Howard after Higdon, converting Davies’ set-piece, had cancelled out Wilbraham’s opener from Mark Little’s centre.

Little, who appeared to inadvertently catch Harris with an elbow after Higdon’s header, was fortunate to remain on the pitch having already been cautioned before sending Murphy sprawling. But Paul Tierney, whose officiating frustrated Clough and his coaching staff throughout, elected not to censure the City full-back.

Murphy recovered to again go close after Elliott had swept across Howard following Wilbraham’s flick from Williams’ pass but United could not draw level.

“I don’t like losing, none of us do,” Higdon said. “Even so, I can’t wait to get back out there again. We’ve got to get better in some areas, but that’s going to happen with hard work and is always going to be the case at this stage.

“The score aside, I thought there was a lot out there to be encouraged about.”

Hero: Craig Alcock excelled at centre-half despite being primarily signed to operate at full-back. The former Peterborough defender might not be especially tall but he knows how to time his leap.