Soaring tempers, plunging temperatures and two teams prepared to give absolutely everything in pursuit of their respective cause. This, as Nigel Clough acknowledged afterwards, was football in the raw.
For his Sheffield United side, which has often stood accused of saving its best for knockout competition, Saturday’s contest with Preston North End could also represent a coming-of-age moment, when, after numerous false dawns and disappointments, they discovered how to translate performances into a positive League One result.
“We got together before the game and we knew it would be a battle,” Michael Doyle, the former Celtic midfielder, said. “The pitch wasn’t great and so we just had a word with each other to remind ourselves that, if we matched them in a physically, then our quality would come through in the end, which it did.
“As players and as a group, we’re starting to realise what we need to do to win these games. We’ve been in this league for far too long now and it’s getting to the stage of the season where we’ll either kick on or sink.
“So, mentally, this could be a big thing for us.”
Make no mistake, this was a pivotal game in the battle for promotion. Defeat would have seen United slip 15 points behind their rivals from across the Pennines and, given events elsewhere, out of
the top six to boot. Instead, twice prising apart the best defence in the division during a brutal second half, Clough’s players were able to negotiate a nervous finale after a free-kick from Josh Brownhill had placed the outcome in doubt.
United, though, deserved to prevail with Doyle and Stefan Scougall both spurning opportunities to extend their advantage before the North End substitute pounced.
“I thought an incredible amount of hard work went in to that against a very good side,” Clough said. “A lot of teams would crumble after going two down but Preston just upped the ante and threw more men in our box.
“We came out after half-time with a little bit more intent and purpose.
“That makes a big difference because both of us looked a little bit edgy at the start.
“You saw the benefits of our system with Michael Doyle and Stefan Scougall getting through for one-on-ones.
“Make no mistake, that’s an important result for us. We needed that and, because of who it’s come against, psychologically it should do us the power of good.”
Clough was referring to a Preston squad which had made the journey to South Yorkshire beaten only once in 11 outings and unbeaten away from home since November 4. Given the significance of the occasion, it was inevitable both they and United started in slightly tentative fashion although the hosts, ending a run of six league games without a win, carved the better chances with Jamie Murphy and Doyle freeing themselves from the arm-wrestle to unleash decent attempts from long range before Marc McNulty and Jamal Campbell-Ryce pounced.
Underpinning United’s efforts, though, was the dogged determination of Doyle and youngster Terry Kennedy who repaid Clough’s faith by marking only his second appearance of the season with an excellent performance at centre-half.
“It was Terry’s type of game out there,” Clough later insisted. “He’d run through a brick wall for this club and he embodies the attitude we are going to need.”
Doyle, who also endorsed the manager’s decision to use McNulty sparingly this term despite seeing him score for the fourth time in six games, agreed.
“Marc is still young and you can’t put too much pressure on him,” he said. “He (Clough) has to do what he’s doing because it’s Marc’s first time down in England and his first time at this level whereas, before, he was at one where a lot of the lads were probably part-time.
“You don’t want to risk anything like burn-out because it can be very demanding. At big clubs, which this is, the mentality is that you’ve got to go out and win every single time.
“It was the same at Celtic. Even at reserve or youth team level, everyone wanted to beat you. You were the big fish and it was a feather in their cap if they did.
“But our crowd is the best, our stadium is the best and our atmosphere is the best in the league. So we just have to deal with the fact that people are going to think like that.”
Despite drawing comparison with Jose Mourinho’s handling of Eden Hazard at fellow Capital One Cup semi-finalists Chelsea, Clough’s ‘tough love’ approach has raised eyebrows among some sections of the Bramall Lane support. The former England international was again sparing in his praise of the 22-year-old Scot despite watching him score for the 10th time following a summer move from Livingston with an instinctive finish.
“It might have taken a slight deflection,” Clough said after watching McNulty hook the ball over the advancing Thorsten Stuckmann following a scramble in the penalty box. “Terry was claiming it but we don’t take goals off centre-forwards and give them to a centre-half.
“Marc held the ball up much better today and brought others in to play around him. But he’s still got plenty of work to do.”
What can not be disputed, however, is that Clough’s decision to keep the whip hand on McNulty is squeezing the best out of “arguably the most exciting talent to arrive at Bramall Lane in recent months.
“Marc is probably something we’ve not had for a long time here,,which is an out and out goalscorer,” Doyle continued. “I certainly feel, and some of the other lads who have been here a while too will say the same, that we’ve probably got that man now.
“I always feel, if he starts or comes off the bench, that Marc will take a chance if one comes his way. But, like the manager says, he’s got to keep working hard and learning if he wants to be the player that we think he can be.”
North End, who drop to fourth, boasted plenty of power but, with Joe Garner nursing a tendon injury, made little impression in front of goal. Kevin Davies and Jermaine Beckford, who scored 55 times in 92 appearances under Grayson at both Leeds and Huddersfield Town, tested United’s back four with their knowledge and experience but failed to demonstrate the necessary guile. No so McNulty when, after twice going close before the interval, he turned home after Doyle had seen a shot charged down.
Former United loanee Paul Gallagher dragged high and wide soon after but, with Scougall glancing just past the near post following a powerful run into the area, Campbell-Ryce, who like McNulty had also been on target during their FA Cup victory over Queens Park Rangers six days earlier, doubled United’s lead after profiting from Murphy’s drive.
Substitute Brownhill reduced the deficit with a set-piece which Mark Howard came agonisingly close to saving but sixth-placed United, who face fellow contenders MK Dons and Swindon Town before the end of the month, held on as North End piled forward in search of an equaliser.
“We’ve got to put all of this behind us now and forget about it,” Doyle said. “We have to take the positives but go out there and be ready to do exactly the same things over and over again.
“If we match teams for workrate then, in people like Jamie, Jamal and Marc, we know we’ve got the match-winners who can make a difference. After all, they’ve just shown it out there.”
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 7, Harris 7, Flynn 7, Doyle 8, Murphy 8, Scougall 7**, Baxter 7***, McNulty 8, McEveley 7, Campbell-Ryce 7*, Kennedy 8. Substitutes: Alcock*(79), J Wallace**(81), Higdon, Reed, Turner, Adams, K Wallace***(83).
PRESTON NORTH END: Stuckmann 6, Wiseman 7, Clarke 7, Humphrey 6***, Kilkenny 7, Davies 7, Beckford 6*, Gallagher 7, Buchanan 6, Welsh 6**, Huntington 6. Substitutes: Jones, Wright, Woods, Reid*(67) 6, Brownhill**(67) 7, Browne, Ebanks-Blake***(77).