Burton Albion 1 Sheffield United 3: Blades return to top of Championship but horror injury sours night

Leon Clarke wheels away in celebration after netting the Blades' third goal against Burton Albion. Picture: Sportimage
Leon Clarke wheels away in celebration after netting the Blades' third goal against Burton Albion. Picture: Sportimage
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Chris Wilder is doing is best to pretend otherwise but, after watching them climb back to the top of the Championship table, there is something reassuringly familiar about how Sheffield United’s season is beginning to unfold.

Two goals from Billy Sharp, his seventh and eighth since scoring 30 during last term’s League One title winning campaign, helped fire the visitors to their fifth victory in six matches and, more importantly, back above Wolverhampton Wanderers in the scramble for Premier League football.

Paul Coutts lays in agony after being caught late by Burton's Marvin Sordell. Picture: PA

Paul Coutts lays in agony after being caught late by Burton's Marvin Sordell. Picture: PA

But, unfortunately for United and Paul Coutts in particular, this result came at a price with the midfielder leaving the pitch on a stretcher after colliding with Burton Albion’s Marvin Sordell during the closing stages of the opening period.

Wilder later confirmed the 29-year-old, whose touch, technique and vision are instrumental in his 3-5-2 system, had suffered a fractured leg.

It was the only sour moment of an otherwise profitable evening but one which, given the diagnosis, could have serious implications going forward.

However, as Leon Clarke demonstrated when he ended Burton Albion’s resistance, others are ready to step into the breach.

STAR MAN: Billy Sharp

STAR MAN: Billy Sharp

“We’re pleased to be where we are,” Wilder said.

“But I think you’ll understand why everyone is a little bit subdued in there.”

Nigel Clough, who led United into the semi-finals of both the FA and EFL cups before being replaced by Wilder’s immediate predecessor Nigel Adkins, is not a man to hide his emotions.

So it was pleasing, from a red and white perspective at least, to see him spend the majority of the first-half either making pained expressions or holding his head in his hands.

Billy Sharp doubles United's advantage at Burton. Picture: Sportimage

Billy Sharp doubles United's advantage at Burton. Picture: Sportimage

Matty Palmer’s long-range effort, wedged in between Sharp’s brace, briefly provided him with some respite.

But when Clarke netted for the fifth time in two games, he knew the game was up.

It is remarkable to think, with Sharp and his strike partner in such prolific form, fears were being expressed during the close season about a supposed lack of firepower.

Although United’s progress has captured the imagination, Albion are masters of punching above their weight.

Fifteen years ago, they had just faced Kettering Town in the Football Conference.

Now, a decade-and-a-half later, the former non-league club finds itself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Wolves, Aston Villa and last night’s opponents.

Clough, the man responsible for writing this sporting fairytale, began his first spell in charge with a Southern Premier Division fixture against Grantham Town in 1998.

Having spent 19 months with United before returning to the Pirelli Stadium, he used his matchday programme notes to speak fondly of his time in South Yorkshire, the away supporters and Wilder and his staff.

Clough, spinning around inside his technical area with a look of anguish etched across his face, made no attempt to hide his frustration when Kyle McFadzean proved equally obliging.

The former United defender will argue it was John Fleck’s pass, perfectly weighted and flighted, which left him so horribly exposed.

But McFadzean’s challenge on Sharp was clumsy and left referee Oliver Langford with no other option than to point to the spot.

United’s captain, who duly recovered to fire home past Stephen Bywater, has now hit the target 26 times in 39 outings.

But it was Mark Duffy and Leon Clarke who went closest to extending their lead before Sharp pounced again.

Coming less than 120 seconds after Palmer’s spectacular strike had briefly drawn Albion level, his seventh of the season betrayed the confidence and spitefulness of Wilder’s squad. Something Clarke underlined during the closing stages after being released by the excellent John Fleck.

Wilder has spoken on numerous occasions about the importance of being presented with difficult selection decisions.

With Jamal Blackman recovering from the back injury which forced him to miss the Yorkshire derby against Hull City, he found himself wrestling with a particularly taxing dilemma ahead of the meeting with an industrious and deceptively dangerous Albion outfit.

Although the on-loan Chelsea player was preferred to Simon Moore, United’s coaching staff must have been tempted to keep faith with one of the most influential members of last season’s promotion winning squad.

In the event Blackman, who was powerless to prevent Palmer’s 32nd minute equaliser, enjoyed a relatively trouble-free night.

The same, however, could not be said for Coutts.

Sharp’s opener, 20 minutes earlier, laid the platform for United’s 12th win since returning to the second tier of English football.

After a brief flurry from Albion, United wrestled control of the contest when Fleck’s pass set in motion the chain of events which saw them take the lead.

Duffy and Clarke both went close following Palmer’s dramatic intervention which was as memorable as it was against the run of play.

Only the width of a post denied Clarke his fifth goal in two matches while Duffy, following a clever interchange involving Enda Stevens, saw a vicious shot fly inches over the crossbar.

Coutts’ plight appeared to have a debilitating effect upon United during the early exchanges of the second period although Albion survived their appeals for another penalty when Duffy’s shot seemed to hit a defender’s hand.

Jake Wright and Cameron Carter-Vickers, who won his first senior cap for the USA during Tuesday’s friendly with Portugal, combined to stop a piledriver from Matthew Lund bursting the back of Blackman’s net while substitute Lucas Akins was causing problems after being handed a roving brief.

But Clarke, latching onto another fine pass from Fleck, ended Albion’s hopes of a fightback when he turned the ball beyond the advancing Stephen Bywater.

Substitute Brooks should have stretched United’s lead still further but shot wide.

Burton Albion: Bywater, Warnock (Miller 81), Allen (Scannell 65), McFadzean, Turner, Murphy, Lund, Dyer (Akins 26), Sordell, Palmer, Buxton. Not used: Ripley, Flanagan, Naylor, Varney.

Sheffield United: Blackman, O’Connell, Wright, Carter-Vickers, Basham, Stevens, Coutts (Lundstram 45), Fleck, Duffy, Sharp (Brooks 70), Clarke. Not used: Moore, Donaldson, Stearman, Lafferty, Carruthers.

Referee: Oliver Langford (West Midlands).

Attendance: 5,167