Shrewsbury 1, Blades 2: United keep faint play-off hopes alive as Adams and Sharp score again
It is going to be as tough as eagling the tenth at Augusta National or turning Amen Corner under par.
Probably tougher given that, in order to reach the end of season play-offs, Sheffield United require others to falter while they produce the greatest comeback of their footballing lives.
Manager Nigel Adkins invoked the spirit of Danny Willett’s recent triumph at the Masters before last night’s match against Shrewsbury Town. Perhaps for good reason, too, after goals from Billy Sharp and Che Adams moved the visitors to within four points of sixth-placed Gillingham with three fixtures remaining.
Shrewsbury, who are embroiled in a battle for survival at the other end of the table, proved awkward opposition and saw Kyle Vassell miss a penalty before Sharp pounced.
Abu Ogogo gave the hosts hope by dragging them back on level terms soon after the interval but Adams dashed them midway through the second period. His strike, which took a slight deflection, might have been fortuitous. But, a few brief scares apart, it was deserved.
United, recording back to back away victories for the first time since February last year, have performed in fits and starts during the former Scunthorpe, Southampton and Reading chief’s debut season at the helm. This game was the past eight months condensed into and hour-and-a-half of fast and furious action with the visitors briefly losing control following Ogogo’s equaliser, before imposing their authority as the evening progressed.
Adkins has placed great faith in the partnership between Adams and Sharp of late and it was repaid in full at Greenhous Meadow, with the two combining to devastating effect to keep United’s faint promotion hopes alive.
Shrewsbury, recalling Nathaniel Knight-Percival after suspension, were a much tighter defensive unit than the one which had conceded nine goals during his three match ban. But a rearguard also bolstered by the experienced Zak Whitbread’s presence was ruthlessly prised apart by Sharp and Adams who exchanged passes for the latter to claim their decisive goal.
Adkins, naming an unchanged starting eleven for the fourth match in succession, has claimed repeatedly that consistent selections invariably produce consistent results and his players lent further weight to that argument with a battling and ultimately profitable display. Admittedly, it must be said, with a little help from the opposition, who spurned two glorious chances to take the lead before Sharp scored his 20th goal of the campaign.
At times this season, as their League One ranking illustrates, United have enthralled and frustrated in equal measure. Sharp, though, has been delightfully predictable throughout and netted for the 13th time in his last 21 outings with trademark aplomb after being released by Ryan Flynn.
Shrewsbury, full of tenacity and trickery during the opening skirmishes, were badly shaken by Vassell’s earlier miss and did not regather their composure until the second half.
Indeed, after a largely one-sided first period, Ogogo’s effort threatened to completely transform the flow of the game with Micky Mellon’s side laying siege to United’s penalty area following the midfielder’s intervention.
Adams, however, had other ideas and underlined his growing maturity by scoring his second goal in the space of days having also hit the target during last weekend’s victory over Chesterfield.
Having entered the fixture only a place and two points above the relegation zone, needs must for Shrewsbury at this stage of the campaign. The precariousness of their situation was best demonstrated when Mellon, who warned beforehand that guts rather than guile will save the club from an immediate return to the fourth tier of English competition, plunged James Wesolowski straight back into action following a long absence through injury.
With Adkins forcing Mellon’s hand by refusing the on-loan James Wallace permission to feature against his employers, the Australian was denied the opportunity to ease himself back into the fray and was instrumental in preventing United from establishing a strong foothold. Nevertheless, although Wesolowski disrupted their rhythm, he failed to break the Yorkshiremen’s spirit as Adams’ persistence showed.
Any fears that the contest would prove to be a tight, chess-like affair were quickly dispelled during a fast and frantic opening which saw the visitors go close through Sharp before surviving two huge scares. The first escape came in the fourth minute when, after the United centre-forward’s drive had flashed just past Jayson Leutwiler’s post, Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro inexplicably refused to play the ball after being released by Kyle Vassell. The 23-year-old, whose trickery had threatened to tie United’s back three in knots, caught the eye again five minutes later. Albeit, on this occasion, for his profligacy rather than prodigious skill.
Sullay Kaikai delivered a cross into George Long’s box which, for reasons known only to himself, Jay McEveley decided to handle. Vassell, who had failed to score in his 12 previous appearances for Shrewsbury since completing a temporary transfer from Peterborough, elected to take the resulting spot-kick but his tame attempt was comfortably saved.
As the home crowd voiced their anger, Sharp ensured Vassell’s error was punished further by dispatching a clinical 19th minute finish following Flynn’s perfectly measured pass.
Ogogo, who began his career as a striker with Wimbledon, rolled back the years to scoop home Akpa Akpro’s centre nine minutes after the interval. Adams restored United’s advantage in the 67th minute after combining well with Sharp although his shot appeared to take a slight deflection as it snaked beyond Leutwiler’s outstretched palm.
Shrewsbury Town: Leutwiler, Sadler, Whitbread, Vassell (Mangan 65), Kaikai, Weslowski, Grimmer, Ogogo, Knight-Percival, Hendry (Whalley 79), Akpa Akpro. Not used: Halstead, Black, Clark, Cole, Smith.
Sheffield United: Long, Basham, Flynn (Cuvelier 85), Coutts, Sharp, Done, McEveley, Baptiste, Adams (Woolford 90), Edgar, Hammond. Not used: Howard, Sammon Calvert-Lewin, McGahey, Whiteman.
Referee: David Webb (Lancashire).