Birmingham City v Sheffield United: Another game, another win, another goal for Billy Sharp
Yes, this match was decided by skill and technique with Billy Sharp and Jayden Bogle providing the decisive touches.
But mostly it was concentration. The ability to ignore the whistles in the crowd which provided an eerie soundtrack to the game and focus purely on football. Well, as much was humanly possible as Birmingham City supporters exploited the presence of SKY’s television crews to bring their protest - about the governorship of the club and plenty more besides - to an international audience.
Whether or not the atmosphere affected the quality of the game, only those involved will know. But tonight’s fixture definitely wasn’t a classic until it suddenly exploded into life during the closing stages.
Not that Paul Heckingbottom minded a jot. Celebrating his sixth victory in eight Championship outings since taking charge, he punched the air with delight after watching United take another important step towards the play-offs. After falling behind when their former striker Lyle Taylor pounced midway through the second period, the visitors’ prevailed partly through quality. But also, and perhaps even more encouragingly given the challenges ahead, perseverance.
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After extolling the virtues of Oliver Norwood and Conor Hourihane in midweek, it was a surprise to learn Heckingbottom had broken up their partnership when the teams were unveiled ahead of kick-off. Whether or not he had one eye on Wednesday night’s game against West Bromwich Albion or was reacting to something spotted by United’s scouts and match analysts, the experiment didn’t really work. All three, with Norwood retaining his place as Hourihane dropped to the bench, are fine performers in their own right. But United’s midfield here was initially less than the sum of its parts, with Ndiaye providing the only real moments of quality whenever he dropped deep in search of the ball. Well, at least until Sander Berge provided the assist for Sharp’s strike with a perfectly weighted pass. Not before time for the Norwegian, who improved as the contest wore on.
United’s most productive attacker at St Andrews by some considerable margin, Ndiaye thought he had done enough to be awarded a penalty during the opening exchanges. Seizing upon a lapse in concentration from City’s Teden Mengi, the Frenchman’s appeals were ignored by referee Keith Stroud when he hit the deck after powering past the defender. Heckingbottom looked less than impressed as he confronted the fourth official. And no wonder because if Ndiaye hadn’t been impeded inside the box then he definitely was outside of it, as Mengi attempted to thwart his progress.
Bogle, who later went missing for Taylor’s opener, saw an effort smothered at the near post.
But it took a spat between Ndiaye and City captain Marc Roberts, following a skirmish on the byline, to ignite the fixture.
Taylor, scoring for the second time in as many outings since his loan move from Nottingham Forest, fired City in front with a clinical finish from Juninho Bacuna’s pass. After taking a few minutes to clear their heads, United struck back when Sharp swept home past Neil Etheridge. Released by Berge, it was his 10th goal of the campaign and yet another example of why he deserves a new contract.
Bogle then dealt City a killer blow when, following an interchange involving Norwood and Fleck, he converted from an acute angle.