Chris Wilder has accused his players of letting opponents off the hook in recent weeks but they delivered the perfect riposte to his criticism by overwhelming Swindon Town at Bramall Lane this afternoon.
Goals from Mark Duffy (2), Paul Coutts and Caolan Lavery saw Sheffield United move back into second place and to within three points of leaders Scunthorpe following this devastating display of attacking power against Luke Williams’ side.
Wilder will have been delighted by the maturity United demonstrated as they pressed and probed before finally picking a route through Swindon’s defence. But the fact that, after recent defeats to Walsall and Bolton Wanderers, they also proved able to twist the knife pleased him even more.
With Duffy excelling in midfield. United always look likely to create chances. The ability to take them could well decide whether they are celebrating a return to the Championship in May.
If United expected Swindon to come and park the proverbial bus in front of Lawrence Vigouroux’s net, they were mistaken. Indeed, after watching his team mates thrust onto the back foot by Luke Norris’ pace, Simon Moore was forced to make a superb save when Darnell Furlong escaped his marker at a set-piece.
But, as the half wore on, United seized control before stunning their opponents with two quick-fire strikes at the beginning of the second period. Duffy, who oozed quality throughout, broke the deadlock with an angled attempt which Lawrence Vigouroux failed to prevent crossing the line before Coutts pounced with a clinical finish.
Duffy’s masterclass continued when he converted from inside the six yard box soon after. The summer signing from Birmingham City, who was named in last season’s PFA’s League One team of the year after helping Burton Albion win promotion, might not be blessed with explosive pace. But his speed of thought, coupled with superb technique, made him a joy to watch against opponents whose resistance crumbled once the deadlock was broken. Lavery got in on the act during the closing stages when he completed the rout. It was his first goal since leaving cross-city rivals Sheffield Wednesday earlier this term and, with the busy Christmas fixture schedule looming large on the horizon, could not have come at a better time.
Despite their perilous predicament towards the foot of the table, Swindon do not suffer from a shortage of confidence. Moore denied Furlong in the second minute after a spell of pressure by the visitors had been rewarded with a free-kick on the left hand edge of the goalkeeper’s penalty area while Norris also posed a threat. As the half wore on, United began to pose some problems of their own with Done, recalled following a short spell on the bench, wasting a glorious eighth minute chance after being released by Mark Duffy. Having earlier received a generous round of applause for hunting down a loose ball, it was a cameo which illustrated perfectly the strengths and weaknesses of Done’s game.
That miss, though, proved to be the catalyst for United’s best period of the contest so far. Paul Coutts, described by John Fleck in the matchday programme as the division’s best midfielder, saw a long-range drive gathered by Vigouroux before Billy Sharp and Daniel Lafferty both went close just past the half hour mark. Duffy, spotting United’s captain peeling away towards the flank, swept a delightful pass over Swindon’s rearguard and into his colleague’s path. Sharp chipped the ball over the advancing Vigouroux but Michael Doughty hacked clear before it crossed the line. Lafferty seized possession and unleashed a powerful low drive but Vigouroux, who had scrambled back to his feet, intervened.
Sharp should have broken the deadlock two minutes after the restart but inexplicably dragged his shot across goal following Lafferty’s assist. Wilder, who has stressed the importance of being ruthless in the final third, must have feared the worst. But first Duffy and then Coutts ensured the scoreboard reflected the flow of the game. Vigouroux got a hand to Duffy’s 52nd minute shot but failed to gather and, despite claiming otherwise, watched the ball trickle across the line. Then, two minutes later, Coutts picked his spot and dispatched a low shot into the far corner of Swindon’s net. Duffy stretched United’s lead further on the hour when he turned home from close range. Done went close soon after before Lavery, who had earlier gone close with a well-executed shot, saw a mis-hit one sneak past Vigouroux with 12 minutes remaining.
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham, Sharp (Clarke 78), Done (Lavery 69), Coutts, Freeman, Ebanks-Landell, Duffy (Scougall 85), Lafferty. Not used: Hussey, Ramsdale, Wright, Brown.
Swindon Town: Vigouroux, Ormonde-Ottewill, Thomas, Rodgers, Doughty (Hylton 46), Obika (Defouneso 62), Goddard (Smith 68), Furlong, Jones, Rossi-Branco, Norris. Not used: Henry, Smith, Sharpe, Evans, Murray.
Referee: Gavin Ward (Surrey).