FA Cup Match Report: Sheffield United 1, Preston North End 0
Billy Sharp celebrated his return to the starting eleven by sending Sheffield United into the fifth round of the FA Cup.
After receiving reassurances about both his status and future at the club by manager Chris Wilder, the United captain converted the late penalty that settled a tie which had, at one point, seemed destined to end all square.
Whether or not his contribution proves enough to secure a prominent role when Aston Villa visit South Yorkshire in the Championship on Tuesday remains to be seen. But, although neither he nor United were at their swashbuckling best against a Preston North End side who went close to snatching an added time equaliser through substitute Jordan Hugill, his finish from the spot served as a timely reminder that, at the crucial moment, Sharp can always be relied upon.
The return of Ched Evans from injury and Ben Heneghan's assured debut performance were two positives Wilder will take from this largely low key game. On top, of course, of Sharp's ability to ensure the tie did not require a replay.
Heneghan went about his business calmly, maturely and without fuss at the heart of United's rearguard, suggesting he could have a bright future at Bramall Lane following his summer move from Motherwell. At the other end of the pitch, Sharp did what he does best after being brought down by Tom Clarke during the closing stages.
"It wasn't a classic game," Wilder admitted.
"We needed to show a little bit more spark which I think Ched's introduction did. We edged a tight game between two very evenly matched teams. Both of us, Alex and I, will be delighted it was decided on the day."
The first half was high on energy but, despite the best efforts of both teams involved, low on goalmouth action. Indeed, it was telling that two fouls, from John Welsh and Daniel Lafferty, provoked the most animated reactions from the respective benches.
Given Wilder's rotation policy, it was inevitable that United lacked their usual rhythm. There were flashes of quality, particularly from Mark Duffy and George Baldock, but neither goalkeeper was truly tested until Daniel Lafferty's fierce volley drew a superb save from Declan Rudd at the beginning of the second period.
Evans' entrance met with the approval of the crowd and, making his first senior outing since September, the former Wales international saw a half chance cleared after meeting John Fleck's corner. But it was Sharp who produced the decisive run and touch.
As expected, both managers made changes but, illustrating the progress both clubs have made in recent months, still named strong teams. Captain Billy Sharp was among seven changes to the United starting eleven which had beaten Norwich City last weekend while Ben Heneghan, who has been linked with a loan move during the transfer window, linked-up alongside fellow centre-halves Richard Stearman and Jake Wright.
Wilder had pledged to show the tournament the respect it deserves and doubts, if any existed in the first place, were quickly expunged by his reaction to a challenge on Duffy. Arms flailing and mouth spitting out invective, the United manager charged out of his technical area to remonstrate with the referee. Duffy, who had signed a new contract on the eve of this game, recovered but his first pass, as Clayton Donaldson peeled off the shoulder of a defender, went astray.
John Lundstram calculated his angles perfectly soon after, with a low drive which Sharp deliberately overstepped to try and catch Preston's defence off guard but Darnell Fisher had read his intentions and the ball was cleared.
Duffy was quickly back to his best when, in the 17th minute, he slipped a delightful pass towards Sharp whose shot was blocked before Donaldson hooked wide following Baldock's driving run. Stearman, quickly closed down by three opponents, fired over the crossbar during an ensuing melee.
Duffy created two chances - for Donaldson, who fired wide at the near post, and Lafferty - immediately after the interval. The latter's effort, a vicious volley from near the penalty spot, appeared destined to hit the back of the net. But Rudd, arcing his back and leaping into the air, had other ideas and palmed it over the crossbar.
With 11 minutes of normal time remaining, United made a breakthrough when Clarke tripped Sharp as he attempted to wriggle clear in front of The Kop. After a delay, the captain fired home his ninth of the season before Evans, following a challenge by John Earl, saw an appeal of his own waved away. Hugill, who had scored the winning goal when these two clubs met in Lancashire earlier this term, thought he had restored parity after meeting a cross but his volley was smothered by Simon Moore.
Sheffield United: Moore, Baldock, Fleck, Lundstram , Sharp, Donaldson (Evans 59), Wright, Stearman, Duffy, Heneghan (Basham 59), Lafferty. Not used: Eastwood, Stevens, O'Connell, Wilson, Carruthers.
Preston North End: Rudd, Clarke, Horgan (Barkhuizen 59), Browne, Johnson, Fisher (Woods 68), Welsh (Hugill 68), Moult, Huntington, Earl, Bodin. Not used: Gallagher, Spurr, Maxwell, Robinson.
Referee: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire). Attendance: 15,860.