SHEFFIELD United reasserted their automatic promotion credentials courtesy of this thoroughly professional performance at Prenton Park.
The result, which lifts Danny Wilson’s side up to fifth in the League One table, was doubly important given the damage it inflicts to Tranmere Rovers’ hopes of also securing a top-two finish.
Wilson, whose side return to action when Carlisle visit Bramall Lane on Monday, is fond of cautioning against getting carried away by the outcome of any single game.
But he could scarcely conceal his delight after watching United dominate for long periods against another of the division’s fancied teams.
“That’s a massive three points,” Wilson said. “Especially in the context of the competition as a whole.
“I thought we were in control throughout and that was against a very, very good Tranmere side.
“We played at our tempo and showed great discipline.
“We’ve got to be mindful, though, that there’s a long way to go yet.”
Jonathan Forte, dovetailing well with Dave Kitson, posed Rovers a series of questions but it was the unlikely figure of Tony McMahon who fired United in front during the closing stages of the first half.
McMahon, scoring for the fourth time since arriving from Middlesbrough last summer, benefited from a huge slice of good fortune when his shot was diverted home by the unfortunate Ash Taylor.
But, with United having seized control of the contest following a solid if not swashbuckling start, only the most ardent members of Rovers support could argue the visitors’ goals was not deserved.
With Barry Robson instrumental in midfield, United were responsible for producing the few moments of class such difficult conditions would allow.
Rovers, by contrast, were wasteful and careless in possession.
Indeed, it was not until the 82nd minute that United’s George Long was forced to make a save, when substitute Adam McGurk’s speculative effort sneaked through the crowd.
“I don’t recall George having much to do and it’s not often that people will come here and restrict Tranmere to so little,” Wilson added.
“If that makes others around us stand up and think then great. From our perspective, though, we just want to carry on in exactly the same fashion.
“Keep on doing the same things and with exactly the same discipline.”
United’s Kevin McDonald had insisted beforehand that Wilson’s squad had prepared for trench warfare at Prenton Park.
Certainly the pitch, a cloying combination of mud and sand, resembled something from the Somme rather than a professional playing surface.
The visitors’ mettle was put to the test during the early exchanges as Rovers bombarded Long’s area with a flurry of corner kicks and high balls while Jean-Louis Akpa-Akpro, their French centre-forward, attempted to pummel his way straight through the middle.
Nevertheless, it was Sean McGinty who came closest to breaking the deadlock when he glanced wide following yet another centre.
United, despite spending much of the opening period on the back foot, grew in stature as the half progressed.
A delightful pass from Michael Doyle, which bisected the Rovers midfield and sent Matt Hill scampering down the flank, set in motion the chain of events which forced McGinty to hack clear as Robson primed to shoot while Forte, making his first start since injury, dragged wide.
Forte, on loan from Southampton, was in the thick of things again soon after but was out-muscled on the edge of the six-yard box following good work by Ryan Flynn.
Ronnie Moore, who had expressed concerns about Rovers’ defensive record during the build-up to this match, will have been concerned by the growing understanding developing between United’s front pairing.
Kitson, whose physical attributes could yet prove the perfect foil for Forte’s pace, exchanged passed with his team mate in the 23rd minute but Fon Williams produced a fine near post save.
Forte returned the favour five minutes later but Kitson’s fresh air shot let Rovers off the hook.
As the interval approached, so United’s grip on the contest strengthened. McGinty produced a perfectly-timed tackle to prevent Kitson from again testing Fon Williams’ reactions before the vastly experienced striker escaped his clutches only to head wide from McMahon’s in swinging cross.
Despite the nuisance being caused by United’s attacking quartet, it was the former Middlesbrough full-back who broke the deadlock four minutes before the interval.
There appeared little danger when McMahon unleashed a low drive from 35 yards out.
But when the ball took a wicked deflection off Taylor Fon Williams was left wrong-footed and powerless to prevent it from nestling in the bottom corner of his net.
Rovers, doubtless on the wrong end of Moore’s temper during the half-time break, emerged a much more dangerous proposition for the start of the second.
Zoumana Bakayogo’s appeals for a 53rd-minute penalty were waved away by referee Andy Haines when his centre appeared to hit McMahon on the arm.
Flynn’s rasping 85th-minute shot cannoned back off the crossbar as United reasserted themselves while Robson also went close.
“There was an intensity to that game,“ Wilson said. “And we handled it very well.”
TRANMERE: Fon Williams 7, Holmes 6, Taylor 6, Palmer 6, Bakayogo 7, Power 7, Gibson 6, Bell-Baggie 6 (McGurk 64), Sidibe 6, Akpa-Akpro 6, McGinty 7. Not used: Goodison, Harrison, Stockton, Kay, O’Halloran, Mooney.
UNITED: Long 6, Maguire 7, Hill 7, Flynn 7, Doyle 7, McDonald 7, Kitson 8, Collins 7, Forte 8 (Poleon 89), Robson 7, McMahon 7. Not used: Westlake, Higginbotham, Porter, Ironside, McFadzean, Coyne.
Bookings: Flynn (38), Maguire (40), Sidibe (78).
Hero: He might not have delivered his most eye-catching performance in a Sheffield United jersey but Barry Robson produced some moments of class at Prenton Park. One, a delightful feint and turn, left Sean McGinty trailing in his wake midway through the second half.
Viewpoint: The players of Sheffield United and Tranmere Rovers could have been forgiven for taking to the field wearing flip-flops rather than boots. The pitch at Prenton Park was a beach. Unfortunately, temperatures in the North-west were far from balmy yesterday.