Match analysis: Bury 1 Sheffield United 3 - Ruthless Blades strengthen grip on automatic promotion place
It might have taken an own goal from Bury's Kelvin Etuhu to change the course of a match which saw them extend their lead at the top of the table but there is a growing sense of belief that this will be the season Sheffield United finally wave goodbye to League One.
A combative and, when it mattered, thoroughly ruthless display moved Chris Wilder’s team three points ahead of second-placed Bolton Wanderers despite encountering opponents whose performance once again belied their position near the relegation zone.
Goals from Billy Sharp, Kieron Freeman and, after Jacob Mellis’ first-half thunderbolt, Etuhu’s mishap saw United claim a fifth consecutive victory and strengthen their grip on the race for Championship football next term.
But it was the manner in which the win was achieved, rather than the result itself, which pleased Wilder the most afterwards.
“We are up there to be shot at,” he said.
“When you are where we are you always have a target on your back but, if that’s the way it’s going to be between now and the end, I’ve seen enough in the lads to think they can handle that.”
Mellis, a graduate of United’s Steelphalt Academy, had endured a miserable return to his former club earlier this term.
But, after being sent-off for a crude challenge on Matt Done midway through November’s 1-0 defeat at Bramall Lane, the 25-year-old made his presence felt in a much more constructive manner yesterday by edging Chris Brass’ side into a shock lead before normal service resumed.
United, demonstrating the spiteful side to their character which has helped them seize control of the division, simply dusted themselves down and, despite the challenging conditions, hit back.
“I keep talking about finding different ways to win,” Wilder continued.
“The pitch wasn’t the best and, no disrespect to Bury because they’ve got some very talented lads, probably acted as a leveller.
“But, if you want to achieve, you have to overcome things like that.”
Wilder had warned the congested fixture schedule over Christmas and New Year would test both the depth and durability of his squad.
Caolan Lavery, one of the beneficiaries of the manager’s decision to ring the changes for United second outing in as many days, justified his selection with an industrious shift in attack and two ‘assists’.
But, predictably, it was Sharp who cancelled-out Mellis’ opener as Bury, now without a win in 19 games, threatened to turn the form book on its head.
The United captain scored his 17th goal of the season and fifth in only four games when Chris Brass’ side, who remain 20th, failed to clear a John Fleck set-piece.
Not to be outdone Freeman, who was also on target against Northampton Town 48 hours earlier, found the back of the net during the closing stages.
Once again Lavery, whose cross had forced Etuhu’s error, was the provider.
“I thought Caloan was excellent,” Wilder, who named Marc McNulty on the bench after terminating his loan at Bradford City, said. “Caolan works his socks off and you always know you are going to get that from him.”
United, with Jake Wright and Stefan Scougall also returning to the starting eleven, have made a habit of seizing games by the scruff of the neck in recent months.
But Mellis, who began his career in the South Yorkshire club’s academy before being spirited away by Chelsea, had clearly not read the script.
The midfielder’s career has been on a downward trajectory since leaving Stamford Bridge under a cloud - quite literally - five seasons ago.
The long-range finish which left Simon Moore grasping at thin air, however, confirmed he remains a player of considerable ability.
Likewise Sharp who, once United’s heads had cleared, dragged them back on level terms 10 minutes later.
From that moment on, the drama unfolded in much more predictable fashion.
Sharp, whose equaliser came in typically predatory fashion following a scramble inside the box, was a constant menace with his work-rate off the ball.
Crucially, with the opposition looking to drag them into the trenches, United demonstrated a willingness to make tackles too.
One, from Chris Basham on Scott Burgess, could be heard in all four corner of the ground.
Nevertheless, it was not until the 72nd minute that United took the lead.
Lavery flashed a low centre across the penalty area which Etuhu, getting his legs in a tangle, turned home past Ben Williams.
Ten minutes later, Freeman scored after the Canadian had muscled his way into space on the by-line.
“It’s not all about being pretty,” Wilder said. “You need to more about you than that.”
Bury: Williams, Leigh, Etuhu, Kay, Vaughan, Mellis (Danns 65), Soares, Burgess, Bedeau, Styles (Pope 78), Mackreth (Miller 79). Not used: Pop, Dudley, Rachubka, Hope, Miller, Cooney.
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham, Scougall (Duffy 53), Lavery, Sharp (Done 90), Wright, Freeman, Ebanks-Landell, Lafferty (Coutts 79). Not used: McNulty, Ramsdale, Brown, Coutts, Wilson.
Referee: Rob Lewis (Shropshire).