Preston North End 0, Sheffield United 1: Harnessing the passion of being a supporter helped Chris Wilder’s side regain control of the race for second place
It was supposed to be a joke but, after scoring the goal which lifted them back into second place, David McGoldrick inadvertently revealed the driving force behind Sheffield United's push for automatic promotion from the Championship.
"They're fans," the centre-forward said, referring to his manager Chris Wilder and captain Billy Sharp who partnered him in attack against Preston North End. "That brings something different to the table.
"Sharpy reminds us every single day and he's always showing us pictures, of him wearing some old shirt from the Sixties, when he made his debut I think. There's a flag of him up at the stadium now and he must have pointed to it four times the other day in training."
While their rivals obsess about science, statistics and all the other things which make the game so sterile, United are powered by something much more intuitive as they put the joy back into football. With lifelong supporters holding key positions at the club, surrounded by talented, intelligent players, that mix of aptitude and emotion proved an irresistible combination as they claimed another crucial victory. "Priceless" was how Wilder described his team's relationship with the terraces after United's travelling army had made its presence felt inside Deepdale.
"There's no outsiders here," McGoldrick said. "Everyone, all of us, is here for the same thing.
"No one has to tell us what is at stake. We all know what a fantastic chance we've got this season."
As McGoldrick acknowledged, with only half a dozen games remaining, United find themselves in a wonderful position. But, reflecting upon events during the build-up to the match, the Republic of Ireland international quickly reminded that nothing has been decided yet.
Still, after entering the fixture on the back of a rare but potentially dispiriting defeat, this result did feel significant in both a sporting a psychological sense. Seven days earlier, having surrendered their grip on second-place to arch-rivals Leeds, United listened as one of Marcelo Bielsa's players claimed they were back where they belong. One week later, with their neighbours being beaten by Birmingham City, they produced the perfect response. Not only to the loss to Bristol City but also Tyler Roberts' taunts. The difference in approach, as United prepare for Wednesday's visit to St Andrews, is even more striking than their flourescent away strip.
"The group’s mentality will be key," McGoldrick said. "Resilience, and an ability to grind out wins. This is the crunch time of the season and it is all about points.
"No-one is talking about promotion, play-offs or anything. Just the next game. There will be ups and downs. The past week has shown us that.
"Straight after Bristol City, the manager wanted us in training and doing the same we had done every week.
"He wants us to be good on the ball and tough to beat. We work on that a lot. He hasn’t changed the approach and neither will we. How we play has got us into this position. We have to keep doing that."
Persistence was the key to United's win over a Preston side who, like them, are a team far greater than the sum of its individual parts. Indeed, but for Dean Henderson's reactions, Alex Neil's men could easily have established a healthy lead by the time McGoldrick prodded home his 13th of the campaign following Oliver Norwood's corner.
Although United made a positive start, with Norwood's long-range effort nearly deceiving Declan Rudd, the hosts exploited Jack O'Connell's absence through injury when Lukas Nmecha and Callum Robinson created openings down the flanks. Although their finishes were poor, Henderson also did well on both occasions.
"The gaffer is so passionate about the club," McGoldrick said, referencing the pre-match meeting Wilder had called before departing for Lancashire. "He sat us down and showed us what we needed to do better.
"Even though Bristol City did well, we played into their hands. We had been working on things all week after the gaffer had shown us what needed to be done.
"It was not free-flowing against Preston. It was not pretty. But we got the three points, which is what was needed."
McGoldrick's effort was all about opportunism, as he hooked the ball into the back of the net from close range after Rudd had got a faint but important touch on John Egan's header.
Chris Basham, who had earlier combined with George Baldock to deny Alan Browne and Sean Maguire sights of goal, impressed with his reading of the game and industry. John Fleck, whose slip was responsible for presenting Robinson with his chance, also made some important interceptions as Preston applied pressure and probed. At the heart of it all, enabling Sharp and Enda Stevens to creating openings at the other end of the pitch, was the immaculate Norwood.
"Now, there are 18 points to play for and anything can happen," McGoldrick said. "There will be ups and downs. Will it change again? No-one knows. It might do that right through to the end of the season.
"There is a lot of experience in the group. We have level-headed boys who have been around the block. A really tight-knit group with a lot of characters. The young lads are level-headed, too. They know what needs to be done."
Preston North End: Rudd, Fisher, Earl, Pearson, Davies, Robinson (Moult 53), Browne, Storey, Ledson (Gallagher 65), Maguire, Nmecha (Stockley 75). Not used: Crowe, Johnson, Rafferty, Huntington.Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, Dowell (Cranie 63), Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Duffy (Stearman 77), Sharp (Hogan 83), McGoldrick. Not used: Moore, Coutts, Freeman, Washington.
Referee: G Ward (Surrey)Attendance: 18,339