It was hardly a provocation torn straight from Donald Trump’s playbook or the kind of insult to set pulses racing in Pyongyang but, after reading Ted Smith’s programme notes, Sheffield United took great delight in dismantling opponents whose goalkeeper had insisted beforehand “don’t look like conceding” goals.
Chris Wilder quoted them. Jack O’Connell, who claimed one of four smashed past the Southend youngster, admitted the visitors “owed” Phil Brown’s side a going over after losing heavily at Bramall Lane earlier this term.
Not that there was any malice between the two teams, who combined to produce a hard-fought, enthralling spectacle. But the decision to turn a throwaway comment into a supposed slight reveals how Wilder is attempting to coax even greater levels of performance out of a side already four points clear of their nearest rivals in League One.
“The gaffer warned they’d be right on top of us and they were,” O’Connell said. “And make no mistake, they were. But we’re really intense, in games and every day in training, which is the way its got to be if you want to win things.”
United, as O’Connell acknowledged, did not have everything their own way against a Southend squad which appears well equipped to mount a promotion challenge, albeit via the play-offs, themselves.
Simon Cox’s strike, after Ethan Ebanks-Landell had fired the visitors in front, briefly threatened to change the course of the game. Substitute Jermaine McGlashan’s conversion, following further efforts from Caolan Lavery, Kieron Freeman and O’Connell himself, would have laid the foundations for a dramatic finale had Cox later hit the back of the net instead of a post.
United, though, are a very different beast to the one which limped way through the start of the campaign. Ruthless, tenacious, talented and, after recording a sixth straight win, relentless too.
“This is a bit of a statement, I think, but, with the way we play, we’re always going to create chances,” O’Connell continued. “That’s why there are goals all the way through the team, because we’ll always force free-kicks and corners. Everybody gets the chance to chip in, which is a good quality to have because the more people who do that the tougher it is for others to cope with and stop.”
HAPPY BUT NOT COCK-A-HOOP
Ebanks-Landell, who has now scored as many goals since joining United as he achieved during his first four seasons as a professional footballer, landed the first blow of this absorbing contest when met Mark Duffy’s cross. With Wolverhampton Wanderers scheduled to renew the centre-half’s loan this morning and Burnley agreeing to let Daniel Lafferty leave permanently, O’Connell added: “It’s a massive boost to hear that because we struggled a bit at the beginning but we’ve done really well after they came in.
“They’ve both made a big, big difference to us and brought good balance to the backline. So, to hear they probably are going to be stayingm is really good news.”
Wilder prefers to emphasise the importance of “the group” rather than highlight the contribitution of individual players. But, after seeing Samir Carruthers limp off the pitch only 15 minutes into his United debut, the 49-year-old made an exception.
Carruthers, previously of MK Dons, injured a knee during an accidental second-half collision and is anxiously awaiting to results of his scan.
“I thought, in the short period of time he was out there, Samir showed exactly why we brought him to the club,” Wilder said. “The touches he produced and the runs he made were excellent so, fingers crossed, it’s good news.”
Predictably, given his desire to guard against complacency, Wilder also highlighted other areas of concern during a forensic post-match inquest. Notoriously hard to please, he expressed disappointment United had conceded twice en route to a “really important win”.
Echoing that sentiment, O’Connell said: “It was nice to score but, to be honest, I’d much rather swap my goal for a clean sheet. We’re scoring goals and I think we’ll always be capable of doing that. So we’ve got to try and cut out some of the mistakes. We’ve got to try and improve, we’ve got to try and get better.”
BARCELONA AND BULLYING
Southend entered Saturday’s fixture unbeaten in 10 outings. United finished it having won 12 of their last 15. But their progress could, probably should, have been even more comfortable after Ebanks-Landell’s glancing header broke the deadlock.
Billy Sharp and Freeman, who later scored his third goal in as many games, both missed chances before Cox threaded a low drive past Simon Moore and into the bottom corner midway through the first half.
Moore made a superb save to deny Anthony Wordsworth as Southend rallied before O’Connell met John Fleck’s free-kick following Anton Ferdinand’s foul on Lavery.
The former Sheffield Wednesday centre-forward extended United’s lead during the closing stages after Carruthers and Freeman had combined before the latter powered into the roof of the net from close range.
McGlashan reduced the deficit with an excellent piece of skill and, although Cox saw an attempt cannon back off the woodwork, even Brown admitted that United’s win was deserved.
O’Connell said: “I think Kieron has been watching Danny Alves when he was at Barcelona. And credit to Caolan too because I thought he was immense out there. He might not be the biggest lad on the pitch but I thought he bullied their two centre-halves, to be honest.”