Supposedly England’s most unpredictable competition, League One has been tamed by Sheffield United in recent months.
But this most dangerous of divisions nearly bit back last night as Chris Wilder’s side surrendered a two goal lead before surviving a nervous finish thanks to Jay O’Shea’s strike and a late penalty from Paul Coutts.
United, still eight points clear at the top of the table with only nine fixtures of the campaign left, remain odds on to secure promotion. The manner of their victory, however, confirmed the march to the title will be no procession.
The visitors appeared destined for a trouble free evening when Caolan Lavery and Kieron Freeman pounced before the break. But after handing Swindon Town a route back into the contest - Charlie Colkett and Ben Gladwin levelling the scores - they inexplicably found themselves living on their wits.
O’Shea and Coutts, after substitute Samir Carruthers was brought down by Colkett deep into stoppage time, propelled United to their 1889th league success. Wilder, despite that omen, will have reservations about the performance. But, as he has repeatedly stressed since taking charge during the close season, good squads always find a way to win.
“We made it a little bit difficult for ourselves,” Wilder acknowledged. “We should have put the game to bed. We pressed and got after them but, out of nowhere, they got two wonder goals. Then, credit to our lads, we wrestled it back and showed character.”
Having expressed his satisfaction with both the depth and quality of options at United’s disposal, it was no surprise to see Wilder make changes for the trip to Wiltshire. One was enforced, with Mark Duffy again absent due to injury although the decision to select O’Shea ahead of Samir Carruthers, who impressed during last week’s success over Oxford, initially raised eyebrows. The Irishman, on loan from Chesterfield, justified his selection by keeping the ball moving and intelligently exploiting the space behind Swindon’s midfield before scoring just before the hour. But it was another player summoned from the bench - Lavery - who initially made the greatest impression by edging United into a first-half lead.
The opposition’s lack of experience was evident when, after pouncing on Fankaty Dabo’s backpass, the former Sheffield Wednesday striker was granted the freedom of the County Ground before prodding home from the edge of the box.
There is something about Swindon which brings out the best in Lavery - he opened his United account against them at Bramall Lane three months ago - and, with a little more care around the penalty box, the former Northern Ireland under-21 international could have helped himself to more. Instead, Lavery satisfied himself by creating Freeman’s ninth of the season soon after before first Colkett and then Gladwin changed the complexion of the game.
Wilder has spent the past few weeks warning that opponents, no matter what their position in the table, will be desperate to produce their “A games” whenever United are in town.
But although their finishing was classy, Swindon’s overall performance was anything but. United found themselves having to work much harder than either they or their manager expected thanks to a lack of control.
O’Shea’s second-half finish, his first since leaving the Proact Stadium in January, should have proved the catalyst for a second-half deluge. Instead, with Job Obika seeing a goal disallowed, Wilder’s men found themselves surviving on their wits.
Much, as his demeanour on the touchline betrayed, to the 49-year-old’s annoyance.
Swindon, once perennial favourites for promotion, have endured a season to forget. Threatened with relegation less than two years after beating United en route to the play-off final, Williams and his team entered this match low on confidence and even lower on points.
Despite being a former non-league footballer with the likes of Bishops Stortford and Tonbridge Angels, the 35-year-old’s approach is based on touch and technique rather than blood, guts and thunder. Colkett, Dabo and Rohan Ince, on loan from Chelsea and Brighton respectively, undoubtedly have great futures ahead of them. But, unfortunately for Williams, professional sport is increasingly about the here and now. With three managers losing their jobs over the weekend, he knows league position, not the ability to spot potential, will ultimately decide whether Swindon stick or twist.
Suspicions that United might overwhelm Williams’ side proved unfounded. Indeed, with Jon Obika firing wide during the opening exchanges and Dabo’s cross nearly sneaking into the far corner of Simon Moore’s net, Swindon could have taken a surprise lead. United were more fluid in possession and, with Chris Basham launching a series of driving runs forward, incisive in attack. What they lacked, however, was the attention to detail which would have prised apart a clearly nervous defence.
Coutts and Daniel Lafferty both tried their luck from long-range but it was not until Dabo failed to spot Lavery’s presence that United’s superiority told. Freeman doubled United’s advantage after combining with his team mate but Colkett’s superb effort immediately after the re-start provided Swindon with a lifeline. Gladwin accepted it - steering past Moore - before another defensive mix-up saw O’Shea snatch it away, and Coutts stepped up to convert from the penalty spot when Carruthers was upended.
“Credit to them and their manager,” Wilder added. “Because they gave it a real go. It was a tight game but we’re just happy to come through.”
Swindon Town: Henry, Thompson, Gladwin (Norris 83), Obika, Goddard, Ajose, Colkett, Dabo, Ince, Conroy, Rossi-Branco. Not used: Thomas, Rodgers, Iandolo, Starkey, Twine, Simpson.
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham, Lavery (Carruthers 57), Sharp (Wright 88), Coutts, Freeman, Ebanks-Landell, Lafferty, O’Shea (Hanson 70). Not used: Long, McNulty, Done, Chapman.
Referee: Oliver Langford (West Midlands).
Star Man: Caolan Lavery