Sheffield United claimed a much needed victory when they beat Port Vale this afternoon.
The result ensured a week dominated by the fall-out from a disappointing defeat and a positive drugs test ended on a positive note as the hosts, missing the suspended Jose Baxter, climbed to seventh in the table.
Baxter, who was absent after traces of a prohibited recreational substance were discovered in his system following Tuesday’s defeat at Bury, is expected to discover his fate at some point next week.
But Billy Sharp, whose goal proved decisive, was the only talking point here and provided his manager Nigel Adkins with an opportunity to talk football rather than off-the-pitch events afterwards.
Sharp scored for the 15th time since returning to Bramall Lane during the close season with an emphatic second-half finish. The first had spawned precious few clear-cut opportunities although Nigel Adkins’ side had shaded it on points and deservedly took the lead when the striker powered home on the turn.
Sam Foley blazed over as Port Vale threatened to wrestle control after Sharp had again gone close.
The visitors enjoyed a series of corner-kicks during the closing stages. United defended manfully and, yes, desperately at times. But they got their reward.
Vale’s victory over United earlier this term had been thanks, in part, to their physical but fair approach. United attempted to address this situation by selection a more robust team than has often been the case in recent weeks but it was sheer pace - Che Adams bursting through after four minutes - which created the afternoon’s first chance. The youngster, running beyond Ryan McGivern from the half way line, tried to steer a low drive past Chris Neal but his shot, as Sharp called for the ball to be squared, was saved. Another scramble in the Vale area soon followed before Ryan Flynn tried to exploit Adams’ speed again. On this occasion, after being sent clear by the Scot’s deft lob, he was adjudged to have fouled McGiven as they jostled for the ball.
Likewise Dean Hammond, albeit on Neal, when he tapped the ball home just before the quarter-of-an-hour mark. Boos broke-out among sections of the home crowd when United, faced by a Vale team intent on keeping its shape when not in possession, passed the ball across their back three in an effort to drag an opponent out of position.
Adkins had predicted beforehand that his opposite number would devise a gameplan with the express purpose of frustrating United supporters during the early skirmishes but it was a considered move which, midway through the opening period, provided an opening for John Brayford.
He shot high and wide before Sharp had a ‘goal’ correctly disallowed after straying offside when he collected Hammond’s pass.
Adkins’ response to Tuesday’s defeat by Bury came in the shape of a starting 11 containing three changes with Sharp, Martyn Woolford and Flynn all recalled. Florent Cuvelier also featured on the bench following a lengthy absence due to injury and eventually entered the fray just past the hour mark.
With seven minutes of the half remaining, Chris Basham seized possession deep inside United territory and darted forward but his long-range shot was deflected behind for a corner which was subsequently cleared. Soon after, Hammond met a free-kick at the far post but his header was cleared off the line. In any event, an offside flag had again been raised. Sharp, through a crowd of players, dragged wide in the 44th minute after Hammond, Brayford and Flynn had worked the ball patiently into position.
Five minutes after the break, United broke the deadlock. Hammond found the centre-forward inside the penalty area with a lofted cross and, one touch and a powerful finish later, the ball was nestling in the back of Neal’s net.
Sharp and Louis Reed both dragged wide as United tried to strengthen their grip on proceedings while, at the other end, Brayford did well to clear when facing his own goal from a corner. Foley was close to scoring an equaliser when he curled a looping effort just over Long’s crossbar.
Substitute Matt Done was foiled by an excellent Foley tackle as United sprang a counter-attack but there were no more goals.
Sheffield United: Long, Brayford, Basham, Flynn (Coutts 83), Sharp, Woolford, McEveley, Reed, Adams (Done 81), Edgar, Hammond (Cuvelier 66). Not used: Howard, Campbell-Ryce, Calvert-Lewin, McGahey.
Port Vale: Neal, Purkiss, Dickinson, McGivern, Duffy, Kennedy, Foley, Moore (Kelly 62), Leitch Smith (Dodds 76), Robinson (Hooper 57), Grant. Not used: Streete, O’Connor, Brown, Boot.
Referee: Ben Toner (Lancashire),