Match Analysis: Sheffield United prove they can pass all different kinds of tests as they climb to the top of the Championship table after beating Hull City
Sheffield United are becoming as adept at side-stepping questions about the Championship table as they are winning games.
After David McGoldrick's penalty had propelled them to the top of the rankings, Chris Wilder claimed his team were only bothered about the result. Midfielder Paul Coutts, playing for the second time since returning from long-term injury, obfuscated with the skill of a seasoned politician whenever the subject was approached.
But as the weeks pass by and the points keep coming, it is becoming increasingly difficult to disguise the facts. United, despite their lack of household names and relatively modest resources, are now being talked about as a potential promotion winning squad.
"It's a long season," Coutts reminded, doing his best to downplay expectations following this hard-fought but deserved victory over Nigel Adkins' stubborn Hull City squad. "It's going to be tough.
"It's a little bit early to be thinking about where we're going to be coming because we're up against some big, powerful clubs. Those clubs, who have spent a lot of money, are all expected to be up there. But, within our own camp, we know we have a good honest bunch of lads who are all hard-working and can play as well."
United's reluctance to discuss their potential stems from last term's play-off push when, despite wrestling control of the division by autumn, they went on to finish 10th. Coutts' absence, after breaking a leg against Burton Albion in November, was a contributory factor. But, when his poker face slipped for a second, the 30-year-old admitted that experience, combined with some intelligent recruitment, has left them better equipped to keep pace. Indeed, although City successfuly turned the fixture into a war of attrition, the fact United prevailed confirmed they can pass the type of test likely to become a regular occurrence if results continue after the international break.
"I think a lot of teams are coming to frustrate us, match our shape and sit off us," Coutts said. "Last season, though, has taught us to stay patient and for the crowd to stay patient with us because, if that happens, the goals will come. The gaffer has added to the ranks and we've got some experienced boys out there.
"We are definitely a better squad than we were last season though. There's lads on the bench and not even involved who would be expected to play football. It's what he (Wilder) wants, headaches, and that's what he's got."
With Coutts and Wilder both skirting the issue, it was Adkins who acknowledged United's new-found status. The City manager, whose side were left propping up the rest of the division after McGoldrick had punished Tommy Elphick's foul on Jack O'Connell, described his former employers as a top-flight side in-waiting alongside Middlesbrough and Leeds.
"All three of them play in different ways," Adkins, Wilder's predecessor at Bramall Lane, said. "And that shows there's different wants to win games. Middlesbrough are well equipped in what they do. Leeds, whether they can keep everybody fit is the other side of it, but some of the football they play is really good.
"Sheffield United are now well-equipped. They have an excellent manager, and excellent group of players and are going to be able to deal with injuries. They have got a really passionate support who will get right behind them too."
Although Wilder and Adkins did not see eye to eye on the decision to penalise Elphick, or referee Peter Bankes' interpretation of events at the other end of the pitch, they did agree Saturday's contest was decided by discipline, patience and an ability to make the most of big moments. Three of those came following a laboured first-half when United's Dean Henderson denied substitute Nouha Dicko at the near post before twice thwarting Markus Henriksen in quick succession. City's captain, a senior Norway international, was preparing to wheel away in celebration when he met Reece Burke's cross but the goalkeeper, on loan from Manchester United, parried the ball away to safety. Soon after, the hosts broke the deadlock courtesy of McGoldrick's fifth of the campaign and 100th career strike.
"Sheffield United have suffered over the past few years, but they are on the up now and it's only a matter of time before they are back in the Premier League," Adkins continued. "If you flip it the other way, Hull City having been in the Premier League, are now going through that transitional period, where you have to get all you finances right, the stability of ownership right, and a group of players and team with a way of playing. That takes time, and we are going through that transition now.
"Sheffield United have come through that, and I think there's only positive things going to come for the club in the future."
Electing to start with Kamil Grosicki and Jarrod Bowen on the bench, City signalled their intention to frustrate United who entered the game on the back of trips to Millwall and Blackburn Rovers. Although those journey's appeared to have taken their toll, the excellent Enda Stevens and McGoldrick both went close before the contest emerged from a stranglehold. Billy Sharp also hooked wide before his fellow centre-forward pounced.
"We got off to a good start last year as well," Coutts, who replaced Mark Duffy after the interval, said. "We need to recharge over the break and try to cement ourselves up there and last as long as we can in that sort of position."