Sheffield United 2-0 Rotherham United: Chris Wilder’s men climb above Leeds United and back into the automatic promotion slots
"The matches are disappearing fast," reminded Gary Sinclair, the voice of Bramall Lane's pre-match build-up, as the teams emerged from their huddles. "We need the three points."
Although the same could also be said of the visitors from Rotherham, who remain rooted in the relegation zone., it was a call to arms which resonated better with Sheffield United who immediately seized this game by the scruff of the neck and rarely let go.
Aided by Will Vaulks' red card, correctly issued by referee Geoff Eltringham for a foul on George Baldock, United controlled the overwhelming majority of a fixture after taking an early lead through Jack O'Connell. But, thanks to a combination of their neighbours' resilience and perhaps a sense of their own superiority, it was not until the closing stages that United made sure of the points.
Now second in the Championship, although Leeds could climb above them later this afternoon, Mark Duffy was responsible for ensuring the hosts kept up the pressure on both their rivals from West Yorkshire and leaders Norwich City by claiming his fifth of the campaign.
With only 10 rounds remaining, Wilder will also be encouraged by the sight of his team recording its fifth straight clean sheet. Indeed, on home soil, their rearguard has not been breached in league competition since Boxing Day.
Despite the high-stakes, in between the sweat, tenacity and challenges, there was raw emotion too. Moments after United had put the contest beyond the opposition's reach, all four sides of the ground rose in applause to mark the passing of Joan Stewart, the wide of Rotherham chairman Tony, who died earlier this week.
It is a measure of United's squad depth, or depth of quality to be exact, that predicting Wilder's selections are becoming as difficult as trying to fathom how the race for a top two finish will turn out. Against opponents he is convinced will avoid relegation, (indeed, the 51-year-old and his staff will be cheering them on between now and the end of the campaign), United once again reshuffled their pack with Scott Hogan, Duffy, Baldock and David McGoldrick, now back in the Republic of Ireland fold, all parachuted back into the starting eleven.
The changes did not interrupt the rhythm United have built up in recent weeks, with Rotherham immediately finding themselves pinned back in their own half before O'Connell pounced in the fifth minute.
When the centre-half caressed the ball home beyond Marek Rodak, from a well-worked corner routine, neither Wilder nor Warne will have been overly surprised. Hogan had already gone close, nearly glancing home the first of several delightful dead ball deliveries from Norwood, before Baldock saw a powerful shot blocked.
Alan Knill, Paul Warne's predecessor turned Wilder's assistant, will have been nodding his head in approval when O'Connell's cheeky effort left Rodak rooted to the spot. The United number two is responsible for devising many of their set-piece routines and, although this was one of the more simple, it was mightily effective.
Midway through the opening period, McGoldrick embellished Hogan's clever pass with a lovely piece of skill which ended with him dragging a low drive past the far post. But, showing a durability which should serve them well over the coming weeks, Rotherham cleared their heads and were making a much better fist of things until Vaulks' rash challenge on Baldock saw them reduced to 10 men,
The Rotherham midfielder, who seconds earlier had conceded possession, caught the United wing-back late as he attempted to launch a counter-attack. It seemed to be the correct decision and the absence of any serious protests from Warne's men suggested they privately agreed.
Although John Fleck tested Rodak with a long-range attempt, Vaulks' departure appeared to rob the contest of its energy. United remained on top and, barring the odd dangerous cross from Jon Taylor, largely in control. But Rodak had little to do during the remainder of the half other than parrying an excellent strike from Norwood to safety.
As the rain fell, United emerged for the second-half intent on pressing home their numerical advantage. Despite being frustrated by Vaulks' rash tackle, Warne must have been encouraged by his players' doggedness and determination. For his part, Wilder will surely have urged United to play at greater tempo and pace.
Fleck tried his luck from distance again, although Rodak was always confident the Scot's drive was flying wide. Chris Basham, who made way for Gary Madine soon after, charged forward on the overlap but swept his cut-back behind Hogan. So United were forced to wait until the 73rd minute until extending their lead, when Duffy powered home into the roof of the net from Fleck's short pass.
"We wish you well," Sinclair told Rotherham's following as their players trooped off the pitch. Although this was a routine win for United, Warne's squad demonstrated enough to fight and staying power to suggest they can lift themselves out of the drop zone between now and May.
Sheffield United: Henderson, O'Connell, Egan, Basham (Madine 65), Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Duffy, McGoldrick (Cranie 85), Hogan. Not used: Moore, Coutts, Stearman, Dowell, Sharp.
Rotherham United: Rodak, Mattock, Vaulks, Ajayi, Taylor (Forde 69), Robertson, Ihiekwe, Newell (Williams 69), Smith, Wiles, Jones (Crooks 82). Not used: Wood, Price, Towell, Yates.
Referee: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).