Match report: Sheffield United 1 Bristol Rovers 0
On a night when some injudicious comments cost Sam Allardyce his job as England manager, Sheffield United narrowly avoided a false step of their own.
Substitute Harry Chapman’s goal proved enough to break Bristol Rovers’ resistance following a chequered display at Bramall Lane.
The visitors finished the contest with 10 men after Jermaine Easter saw red for a clash with Jack O’Connell.
But, to their credit, ensured the outcome remained in doubt right until the bitter end.
Chris Wilder frequently reminds his players that being able to grind-out results is the hallmark of a successful team.
So, having repeated the warning on the eve of this game, the former Northampton Town chief will have been delighted to see them oblige against opponents who caused numerous problems with their tenacity and shape.
Despite entering the fixture on the back of a five match unbeaten run, United were fractious in possession for long periods and lacked the momentum which has catapulted them up the League One table in recent weeks.
But this was a victory built on persistence. As well as, it must be said, the peach of a cross from Daniel Lafferty which allowed Chapman to break the deadlock in the second-half.
Rovers’ climb back up the football pyramid after several years of decline has been a remarkable story.
It also serves as a reminder that, in sport, fortunes can quickly change.
Just over a year after winning the Conference play-off final, Clarke, who had been unable to preserve their league status after taking charge in March 2014, led his team to second successive promotion on the final day of last season.
Crucially, the former Mansfield Town midfielder has also retained the rump of the squad which beat Grimsby Town at Wembley 16 months ago.
The spirit which clawed them out of non-league was again in evidence during an impressive opening spell which United survived through a mixture of good fortune, match-craft and Ethan Ebanks-Landell’s ’thou shalt not pass’ approach.
Easter’s poor judgement both on and off the ball also contributed - the Rovers striker wasted two gilt-edged openings before being dismissed for a clumsy lunge at O’Connell - but so did United’s street-fighting style.
They covered-up when required, swung a few haymakers of their own and rolled with the punches until Chapman landed the knockout blow.
Having spent long spells of his United career on the bench following a loan move from Middlesbrough, the youngster needed to make a big impression after replacing Stefan Scougall early in the second-half.
He did exactly that by turning Lafferty’s perfectly weighted centre before celebrating with an equally impressive back-flip.
United’s preparations had been overshadowed by the on-going debate about whether Chris Basham, their influential midfielder, deserved to be sent-off against Scunthorpe three days earlier.
Wilder used his programme notes to mount another vigorous defence of the 28-year-old’s character but, having elected not to appeal the decision, was forced to make one enforced change with Scougall recalled to the starting eleven.
Basham’s absence prompted a change of system too with United reverting to a traditional flat back four rather than the 3-5-2 they have employed to good effect in recent weeks.
Whether or not the reshuffle contributed to their lack of impetus during the opening exchanges is a matter for debate.
But it was Rovers, not United, who carved the first change of what proved an absorbing evening when Ollie Clarke fired just wide of the hosts’ right hand post.
Simon Moore, making his ninth appearance since arriving from Cardiff City, breathed a sigh of relief when the ball cannoned into the advertising hoardings behind his net.
But it marked the start of a sustained period of pressure which also saw Easter go close following a scramble in the six yard box.
But this United team, which underwent a dramatic makeover following Wilder’s appointment during the close season, is a much tougher unit than the one which limped to an 11th placed finish last term.
Mark Duffy stemmed the tide with a tantalising run and cross which simply begged to be turned home before Kieron Freeman and Billy Sharp both tested Kelle Roos’ handling.
Six minutes before the interval, it was Moore’s turn to excel when Chris Lines swept a free-kick around United’s wall.
Easter, who had sliced high and wide during the dying embers of the first-half, spurned another glorious opportunity during the opening skirmishes of the second.
Released by Ellis Harrison’s pass, the former Crystal Palace and Millwall centre-forward should have scored but miscalculated his angles and instead dragged a low shot wide.
Chapman, though, made no mistake after meeting Lafferty’s 65th minute cross.
Moments later, Easter committed his third mistake of the night when he was dismissed for a clumsy challenge on Jack O’Connell as they contested a long punt up field.
Lafferty and John Fleck both cleared off the line as Rovers hunted an equaliser but their search proved in vain.
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, O’Connell, Scougall (Chapman 55), Sharp (Lavery 85), Done, Coutts, Freeman, Ebanks-Landell, Duffy (Brown 90), Lafferty. Not used: Hussey, Ramsdale, Whiteman, Brooks.
Bristol Rovers: Roos, Leadbitter, Brown (James 74), Lockyer, O Clarke, Harrison, Lines, J Clarke (B Moore 62), Easter, Boating (Bodin 62), Clarke-Salter. Not used: Mildenhall, Montano, Gaffney, Colkett.
Referee: Christopher Sarginson (Staffordshire).