It was tense, hard-fought and, given the date, probably very, very poignant.
But, following the most testing period of his Bramall Lane reign, last weekend will also have been among Nigel Clough’s most satisfying in management.
Against a determined and resolute Port Vale side, Sheffield United could not always showcase the ability which exists within their ranks.
However, after entering the contest without a win in five games, this was a test of character rather than calibre.
“We needed that,” Steven Davies, the United centre-forward, said. “You can see there’s a little bit of tension on the terraces and the lads got a little bit nervous at times.
“But I thought we played some great stuff first half and they couldn’t get anywhere near us.
“They came back into it a bit and went very direct. That’s when we showed the spirit and togetherness there is in that dressing room, how we’re ready to pull together when that’s what we’ve got to do.
“In the second half, although we were under the cosh for a short while, we dug in and came through. We showed we’ve got real men in that dressing room.”
The victory, which coincided with what would have been the 80th birthday of Clough’s late father, Brian, was also, to some degree, a vindication of the 49-year-old’s methods.
Jose Baxter’s first-half penalty, which proved enough to maintain fifth position in the League One table ahead of tomorrow’s meeting with Scunthorpe, ensured a bright start which saw Jamie Murphy and Davies go close did not go without reward.
It was impossible to maintain as Vale, who later saw Michael Brown collect his second yellow card of the afternoon during added time, responded with a change of tack and personnel. But United’s approach, at the beginning and end, mirrored the blueprint Clough had outlined earlier in the week.
“He’s right with what he’s been saying all along, definitely,” Davies, on loan from Blackpool, said. “I’ve only been here two weeks and even I can see there are some real quality footballers in there.
“Take Jose for example. He’s great on the ball, never hurried, always composed and rarely gives it away.
“But the most important thing, always, is to take the three points. Even more so when we know we’ve been on a little bit of a bad run.”
The most important thing, always, is to take the three points. Even more so when we know we’ve been on a little bit of a bad run.Steven Davies
Baxter, as his fellow Liverpudlian acknowledged, instigated most of United’s promising moves during the opening exchanges. But Davies, interspersing graft with guile, was an equally if not more influential figure.
Chris Basham too as the hosts ended their near-50-day wait for a clean sheet. United have kept 14 since competition resumed seven months ago and, returning from suspension, Basham has now been involved in 12 of those.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played in a game of football where it’s been the same in both halves,” Davies continued. “We knew it was going to be tough when they made two substitutions and started pumping it forward. The boys in defence coped with that ever so well. They put their bodies in the way and on the line.
“We know we can play football but, out there, we also showed we’ve got a bit about us too.
“This is a big club to play for. If you worry and fold on occasions like this, then you are going to struggle. Even the lads who didn’t get on played a part.”
United triumphed 10-0 when these two clubs first met in 1892. Harry Hammond scored four times during that contest and 123 years later it was Baxter, another former Everton forward, who delivered the decisive blow after Murphy, having earlier examined Chris Neal’s handling with a rising drive, was upended by Vale captain Michael O’Connor.
An emphatic finish saw Baxter become the fourth member of United’s squad to reach double figures for the campaign.
“When Jose stepped up to take it, I knew there was only going to be one outcome,” Davies insisted. “And there was.”
“I think the art of tackling is going out of the game,” Clough’s counterpart, Robert Page, like Brown a member of the United squad which reached the Championship Play-off inal in 2003, countered. “That’s a real shame.”
Davies had already announced his presence when Paul Coutts, deputising for the rested Michael Doyle, pierced the visitors’ rearguard with a clever pass but failed to make the right connection. With Coutts and Baxter ensuring quick transition, Davies did put the ball in the back of the net just before the interval only to see his effort disallowed for offside.
Done drew another smart save from Neal while Vale, who travelled north having won their previous three away outings, saw Marcus Marshall test Mark Howard with an ingenious corner which nearly sneaked in at the near post. Howard, captaining United in Doyle’s absence, also foiled O’Connor before his colleagues wrestled back control.
Davies, who saw an angled attempt fly inches wide before the break, combined with Murphy to force another block from Neal during the close stages when Brown received his second booking for a foul on substitute Ryan Flynn.
“I’ll always back myself to score goals,” Davies said.
“It will come. It doesn’t matter to me when it does because I knew it will.
“The gaffer brought me in because he knows the way I play.
“I tend to attract a lot of attention from defenders.
“If I can move it on then people like Jose and Jason (Holt), who made some great runs, can get on the end of them.
“But it will drop for me. I thought I had one but, looking back, I probably was a little bit offside.”
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Harris 7, Brayford 7, Basham 8, Murphy 7, Baxter** 8, Done* 6, Coutts 7, Freeman 6, S Davies 8, Holt*** 7. Substitutes: Alcock***(90), Flynn*(66) 6, Doyle**(80), McNulty, B Davies, Turner, Adams.
PORT VALE: Neal 7, Yates 6, Robertson 7, McGivern 6, Dodds*** 6, Williamson* 6, O’Connor 7, Brown 6, Moore** 6, Marshall 8, Veseli 7. Substitutes: Duffy, Birchall, Pope*(45) 7, Johnson, Daniel**(45) 7, O’Sullivan, Campion***(68) 6.
MANAGERS’ VIEW - Nigel Clough: “It wasn’t a brilliant game but it’s a good cleansheet and probably the most important three points we have won this season.”
MANAGERS’ VIEW - Robert Page “I didn’t think Michael Brown deserved to get sent off. We’re losing the art of tackling from our game now.”
HERO: Steve Davies excelled for Sheffield United with Chris Basham and Jose Baxter following suit. Paul Coutts and Jason Holt were effective in midfield while Jamie Murphy showed signs of getting back to his best.
KEY MOMENT: Port Vale made a bright start to the second half but Sheffield United dug in and negotiated safe passage through their toughest period of the game before wrestling themselves back on top as the final whistle approached.
VIEWPOINT: Slowly but surely, some key Sheffield United players are returning from injury. This result, after drawing their last two during a run of five games without a win, should ensure confidence follows suit. At the business end of the season, only those with an agenda complain after a victory.
REF WATCH: Jeremy Simpson (Lancashire). Chris Basham was cautioned on his return from suspension while Sheffield United teammates Paul Coutts and Steve Davies were also booked. Port Vale’s Frederic Veseli and Ryan McGivern received a yellow card each while Michael Brown was dismissed after being awarded two.