Sheffield United match verdict: Scunthorpe 1 Blades 1

Kieron Freeman scores. Picture: Martyn Harrison
Kieron Freeman scores. Picture: Martyn Harrison
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Painting this performance in a positive light did not test his powers of imagination.

But, as Sheffield United attempt to reach the play-offs, Kieron Freeman conceded results will ultimately speak louder than well-meaning words.

For long periods, particularly during a dominant first half, Nigel Clough’s side went about its business with a polish and verve which, if replicated on a consistent basis, would almost certainly deliver top-six qualification.

However, Saturday’s contest also exposed the frailties battle-hardened teams like Scunthorpe, who provided tenacious opposition, continue to exploit with alarming frequency - defending set-pieces being chief among them.

“We battered them at the beginning. Possession wise, they couldn’t get near us,” Freeman, who restored parity after Neal Bishop’s opener, said. “Second half, to be fair, they made themselves hard to beat and really got in our faces.

“But if we keep on playing like that then we know we are going to win more than we lose, which is all that matters.”

Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister the last time United beat Scunthorpe away from home and, until Bishop pounced against the run of play, the visitors had seldom had it so good.

Dictating tempo and passing with precision, they seemed destined to end that near-56-year wait in considerable style. Although United’s response was immediate, Freeman scoring only the second goal of his professional career with a memorable finish, their confidence after going behind had clearly been jolted.

As the afternoon wore on and the action became increasingly fractious, thanks in no small part to the Iron’s rugged change of approach, so Clough’s charges became wracked by nerves. Nevertheless, although Paddy Madden wasted two glorious opportunities to score during the closing stages, United substitute Jason Holt also spurned a glorious chance at the death.

“As a team, it’s a great trait that we can stick together and fight,” Freeman said. “That will only help us later in the season.

“If you look at the bottom of the table, teams who were getting pumped 4-0 are now getting 1-1 draws. That’s the way football is.”

Jay McEveley embodied the spirit Freeman, who is expected to face Walsall tomorrow despite being withdrawn due to a tight hamstring, believes can ensure United’s campaign ends on a positive note.

Clough acknowledged afterwards the former Swindon Town centre-half would not have featured if Chris Basham or Terry Kennedy been available for selection.

Clearly hampered by a painful shoulder injury sustained against Fleetwood Town seven days earlier, McEveley failed to win all his duels with the lively Madden. But, partnering John Brayford at the heart of United’s patched-up rearguard, he earned the respect of coaching staff and colleagues alike.

“Jay had a shoulder injury and it was a bad one,” Freeman said. “You could tell by the way he was running.

“But that’s the type of characters we have in our team and that’s the type of character he is. Jay is a leader.

“It would have been easy for him to duck out. We got kicked to pieces at times out there but we dug in.

“The players the gaffer brings in, they are all good lads. The chemistry is already there. It’s good place to be around.”

United, who remain fifth in the table after ending a two-match losing streak, are proving robust on the road. Teenager Louis Reed produced a mature performance in midfield, finding pockets of space in front of Scunthorpe’s penalty area until their manager, Mark Robins, took action after the break.

Bob Harris, whose delightful crossfield pass allowed Freeman to smash a first-time shot back across goalkeeper Luke Daniels, also excelled, while Jamie Murphy was a constant threat.

Reed should have scored during the early exchanges when Matt Done, showing signs of building an effective partnership with Steve Davies, pressurised his marker into a mistake, but the youngster’s attempt was smothered.

Moments before Done glanced a header wide, Murphy had tested Daniels’ handling after using the former Rochdale attacker as a decoy. Davies and Reed also went close until, completely against the run of play, Scunthorpe captain Bishop bundled home George Evans’ free-kick.

It was the 10th time since January that United, with only three of their five 6ft-plus players available, have conceded from a dead-ball situation.

“It is about height but it also underlines the importance of not giving silly ones away,” Clough said. “Still, we should have cleared it and done better there, although there were other aspects of our performance where we did really well.”

Freeman added: “Look at Steve. He’s only been here two games and he’s already flicking unseen headers through t0 Matty without even looking. It’s only a matter of time, in my opinion, before we give someone a real hammering, and that will help us kick on.”

United, who ended the match having enjoyed more possession, more attempts and more shots on goal than Scunthorpe, equalised when Freeman met Harris’ pass and, demonstrating excellent technique, duly converted.

They enjoyed a slice of good fortune when Scunthorpe had a ‘goal’ disallowed for a foul on Iain Turner before he spilled the ball into the back of his own net - “Bob was trying to take the free-kick early,” Clough said. “So he could see what happened” - before Madden shot wide and then straight at the United goalkeeper.

Turner comfortably gathered from Kevin van Veen while Holt, having earlier toe-poked Davies’ cross inches wide, turned over at the near post.

Freeman saw a strong penalty appeal waved away by referee Darren Handley - “It was a definite spot-kick. My legs got taken away from under me” - but said: “When I was younger, I used to shoot all the time. As I’ve got older, I’ve not done it as much but dad and the gaffer are always on my case to shoot more.

“It just comes from the confidence of playing games so, hopefully, I can do enough to show that I’m worthy of staying in there.”

SCUNTHORPE UNITED: Daniels 7, Canavan 7, Madden 7, Bishop*6, Evans**6, O’Neil 6, Boyce 6, McSheffrey***6, Williams 6, Clarke 6, Osbourne 6. Substitutes: Anyon, van Veen**(73), Adelakun*(46) 6, Townsend, Wootton***(77), Llera, Davey.

SHEFFIELD UNITED: Turner 6, Harris 8, Brayford 7, Doyle 6, Murphy 8, Done 7, Coutts*6, McEveley 6, Reed 8, Freeman**7, S Davies 6. Substitutes: Willis, Alcock**(90), Baxter, McNulty, B Davies, Adams, Holt*(73).

MANAGER’S VIEW - Mark Robins: “The atmosphere was brilliant inside the stadium.”

MANAGER’S VIEW - Nigel Clough (Sheffield United): “We shouldn’t have given the free-kick away for their goal. It was silly. But a good point away from home.”

HERO: Louis Reed was excellent during the first half and, despite being a teenager, demonstrated real maturity. Bob Harris impressed again at full-back while Jamie Murphy and Matt Done also did well. The latter never gives defenders a moment’s peace.

KEY MOMENT: If Sheffield United had taken the lead rather than found themselves chasing the game, they would probably have finished the afternoon as comfortable victors. Nevertheless, it was also crucial they responded quickly. And Kieron Freeman did.

VIEWPOINT: Mark Robins insisted he was “at a loss” to understand how Scunthorpe only took a point. Given that Sheffield United enjoyed more possession, more attempts at goal and more shots on target, he should probably be thankful they did.

REF WATCH: Jordan Clarke and substitute Hakeeb Adelakun were both cautioned for Scunthorpe. Referee Darren Handley, who officiated well despite two controversial second-half decisions, did not book a single Sheffield United player.