Hull City 0-3 Sheffield United: David McGoldrick shines as Chris Wilder’s players issue a statement in the race for automatic promotion
When the story of Sheffield United's season is written, however the final two matches turn out, the authors should dedicate a chapter to solving the mystery of how David McGoldrick nearly started it without a club.
The Republic of Ireland international, whose goals laid the platform for this emphatic and, in the scheme of the race for automatic promotion, absolutely crucial victory, arrived at Bramall Lane last summer clutching his kit bag and hoping for a contract after being discarded by Ipswich Town.
Nine months on, after Hull City became the latest team to be undone by his talents, McGoldrick has made a mockery of those who claimed he was too old and too injury-prone to be effective at Championship level. Sometimes, as Chris Wilder and his staff decided before a ball had even been kicked in anger, it is better to ignore statistics and trust your instincts and eyes.
"For me, the most pleasing thing was the sight of Didsy chasing back to make a tackle with five minutes left," the United manager said after McGoldrick's brace edged his side to within two wins of returning to the Premier League.
"That's what we're all about. There's talent, but there's also a real desire to go out there and do the business."
With Leeds facing Brentford later in the day, United's performance represented not only a showcase of their top-flight credentials but also a challenge Marcelo Bielsa's squad in third.
And at the heart of it all, inside a KCOM Stadium which reverberated to the sound of the visitors' favourite anthems all afternoon, was McGoldrick; a player whose exquisite touch and footballing intelligence ensured what threatened to be a nervous 90 minutes became a procession instead.
"I thought we were clinical," Wilder said, doing his utmost to deflect not only talk of individuals but also the potential implications of the result. "And against a damn good side by the way, with quality and someone in charge who will not have wanted to roll over against us."
Although City, managed by Wilder's predecessor Nigel Adkins, made a better fist of things after the break, the fixture was effectively over when McGoldrick produced arguably his best and most important finish in United colours.
Having earlier given them the advantage from John Fleck's centre, the centre-forward appeared to be considering his options as he ambled across the pitch with the ball at his feet. But after a few stuttering steps and glances around him lulled the hosts into a false sense of security, McGoldrick suddenly unleashed a shot of such precision and venom George Long may as well not even bothered trying to pluck it out of the air.
Enda Stevens later put the contest beyond City's reach but it was his colleague, now on target 15 times since August, who stole the limelight with the 99th and 100th league strikes of a bizarrely nomadic career.
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"He's bought in to what we're about," Wilder continued, referring to McGoldrick. "And that is the group."
Predictably, given the physical and psychological challenges of shoe-horning two key matches into the Bank Holiday period, Wilder changed the eleven which had beaten Nottingham Forest three days earlier. One was expected, as record signing John Egan returned from suspension. The other, with Scott Hogan replacing Gary Madine in attack, was probably anticipated given the latter does not appear best suited to working alongside McGoldrick. Indeed it was on the bench, with Chris Basham recovering faster than expected from a hamstring complaint, where United unveiled their greatest selection surprise. Adkins had one up his sleeve too, with former United youngster Long selected ahead of Scotland international David Marshall.
But the 25-year-old had barely had time to adjust his gloves before he was picking the ball out of the net, City's defence seemingly forgetting McGoldrick was standing inside the penalty area when Fleck's corner flashed across the box. The United striker has crafted some exceptional goals since being heading to South Yorkshire but this one, much to Adkins' obvious disgust on the touchline, was so beautifully simple a child could have scored it.
After some anxious moments during the opening skirmishes, McGoldrick's finish settled United's nerves. Wilder has done an expert job of persuading folk it is business as usual behind the scenes as his players chase a prize with the power to change careers and lives. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. But when McGoldrick smashed his second of the afternoon past a despairing and once again helpless Long, United's shirts suddenly appeared noticeably lighter than they had less than 10 minutes earlier. Even more so when Stevens stretched their advantage on the stroke of half-time, turning home following George Baldock's assist.
"I'm not bothered about what happens elsewhere," Wilder said. "Or what results elsewhere are. All I'm bothered about is making sure we're right."
Hull City: George Long, Lichaj, de Wijs, Pugh (Toral 68), Grosicki, Irvine, Kane, Batty, Bowen, Campbell (Dicko 68), McKenzie. Not used: Marshall, Stewart, Evandro, Martin, Ridgewell.
Sheffield United: Henderson, O'Connell, Egan, Cranie, Baldock, Stevens, Norwood, Fleck, Duffy (Basham 60), McGoldrick (Washington 90), Hogan (Madine 71). Not used: Moore, Lundstram, Dowell, Stearman.
Referee: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire).
Highlight: David McGoldrick's second goal would have graced any game but it seemed fitting he scored it in one as important as this. Former United player George Long, named in goal for Hull City, had no chance whatsoever of stopping the centre-forward's long-range effort from reaching the back of the net.