Sheffield United produced a positive result and, perhaps just as importantly, a positive performance too as they eased past Oldham Athletic at Bramall Lane.
Nigel Adkins’ side entered the League One fixture under increasing scrutiny following a disappointing run of form but produced a near perfect response in the shape of this convincing victory.
John Brayford, Ryan Flynn and Billy Sharp all wrote their names on the scoresheet against the visitors from Lancashire.
Oldam produced a few brief moments of promise but finished the afternoon well beaten as the hosts kept their hopes of securing a play-off place alive.
Both of United’s opening goals were impressive in their own right. And both were created, to different degrees, by youngster Ben Whiteman.
First, Brayford deceived Oldham goalkeeper Joel Coleman with a long-range volley after the 19-year-old had worked the ball across field before his pass, perhaps a shade fortuitiously on this occasion, sent Flynn dashing unmarked through the middle before sliding home.
Oldham, captained by former United centre-forward Jonathan Forte, improved after the interval with George Long making a fine save to prevent substitute Curtis Main from reducing the deficit.
But Sharp ended their hopes of a comeback when he struck towards the end.
Whiteman, making his first league start since progressing through United’s youth system, was joined in Adkins’ squad by fellow academy graduates Louis Reed, Graham Kelly, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and, of course, goalkeeper Long.
Although Whiteman owed his position in the starting eleven to the injury sustained by Florent Cuvelier at Fleetwood Town last week, the Belgian’s absence merely hastened the inevitable. Indeed, many of those who have witnessed Whiteman’s performances at under-21 level in recent months would argue he has actually waited far too long for his chance.
It was a theory Whiteman did little to disprove by creating the space for Brayford to fire United into an early lead before Flynn tightened their grip on proceedings.
Dean Hammond had imposed their authtority on midfield superbly while David Edgar and Alex Baptiste dealt comfortably with everything thrown at them.
Oldham, doubtless after a less than complimentary pep-talk from manager John Sheridan, posed a much more formidable proposition during the second-half.
The introduction of Main equipped them with a much more penetrating edge but Sharp’s 16th of the campaign during the closing stages put the game beyond their reach.
United have placed great emphasis on being effective at set-piece situations since Adkins’ appointment last summer and, in the ninth minute, one of the routines devised by his assistant Andy Crosby was a hair’s breadth away from paying dividends when Edgar came agonisingly close to heading home a corner.
Sixty-seconds later, though, United did put the ball in the back of the net when Brayford converted from long-range following Whiteman’s assist after Che Adams had been closed down.
Only eleven more minutes had passed when Flynn doubled United’s advantage with a superb piece of solo play, darting clear into space, rounding Coleman and sliding home into the far corner of the visitors’ goal. Down on the touchline, Sheridan turned away in disgust while three quarters of the ground celebrated and Adkins punched the air with delight.
Done also had an anguished expressed when, after collecting Hammod’s through ball, he drove a low centre across Oldham’s penalty area but Sharp had not made up enough ground to connect.
Sharp had a shot blocked at the beginning of the second period after United, now attacking The Kop, were forced to survive a short period of pressure.
Long produced an excellent save to deny Main before the centre-forward, on loan from Doncaster Rovers, thundered a long-range shot against the crossbar.
With 13 minutes of normal time remaining, Sharp pounced following Brayford’s cross.
Sheffield United: Long, Brayford, Flynn, Sharp, Done, McEveley, Baptiste, Adams (Calvert-Lewin 65), Edgar, Hammond (Reed 71), Whiteman. Not used: Howard, Coutts, Sammon, Reed, McGahey, G Kelly.
Oldham Athletic: Coileman, Mills, Dieng, J Wilson, Jones (BWilson 60), Amadi-Holloway (Thiele 60), Forte, Palmer, Winchester, Gerrard, Dummigan (Main 46). Not used: Brown, L Kelly, Croft, Cornell.
Referee: Peter Bankes (Merseyside),