Sheffield United 2, Bolton Wanderers 0: Goals from David McGoldrick and Billy Sharp lift Chris Wilder’s team to second
The tone was set twenty-four hours before kick-off when, despite Bolton Wanderers' troubles towards the foot of the Championship, Chris Wilder insisted this would be among the toughest and most important matches of Sheffield United's campaign.
The reasoning behind his thinking was not difficult to fathom. With his team entering the match in third, three points behind second-placed Norwich City, it was effectively the first of 17 cup finals.
It was the 500th league appearance of Billy Sharp's career too and he celebrated the occasion in typical fashion, scoring his 20th goal since August. United's captain had earlier provided an assist for good measure, which allowed David McGoldrick to lay the foundations for a result which lifted them into the automatic promotion positions ahead of City's meeting with leaders Leeds.
Predictably, with the visitors fighting for their Championship lives, this fixture was far more keenly contested than the rankings might suggest. As Wilder had suspected, and indeed warned his players, the table is a notoriously poor guide to how a match might progress during the second half of the season.
There were moments of promise, most notably from Mark Duffy and Oliver Norwood, but it took United 55 minutes to prise Wanderers apart with McGolddrick sliding home his 11th of the season and first since agreeing a new long-term contract.
The sight of Phil Parkinson ushering his own midfielders back into position as Wanderers prepared to take an early free-kick provided absolute confirmation that United would be in for a long afternoon. To their credit, though, the fomer Bradford City chief's charges worked tirelessly throughout and stuck religiously to plan. It hardly made for scintillating viewing but, as he attempts to claw Wanderers to safety, that was not Parkinson's concern. The sight of first McGoldrick and then Sharp hitting the target was.
Despite Scott Hogan's arrival on transfer deadline day, it was no surprise to see Wilder revert to his tried and tested starting eleven for Wanderers' visit. The approach it adopted, with Duffy and McGoldrick returning at the expense of Kieran Dowell and Gary Madine was equally predictable, with United looking to gnaw away at the opposition's brittle confidence. The overlapping centre-halves, which have become a feature of United's play under Wilder, were again in evidence as Jack O'Connell swarmed forward, nearly getting his head on one Duffy cross, during the early skirmishes.
Duffy was involved again in the eighth minute too as, clearly intent on justifying his recall, Jack Hobbs nearly turned a cross intended for Sharp into his own net. But Wanderers were far from compliant, with former United striker Clayton Donaldson in particular making a nuisance of himself.
That determination, as their manager Parkinson contested every decision from the technical area, prevented United from finding their rhythm until McGoldrick's strike. But Wilder's men, with Sharp miscontrolling an O'Connell cross in front of goal and Chris Basham inches away from connecting with Oliver Norwood's corner, remained the more dangerous of the two.
Enda Stevens, perhaps the most improved member of Wilder's squad, saw an absolute Howitzer of a shot blocked by David Wheater as United gathered momentum. Wanderers, however, were proving adept at frustrating United's efforts to pick the perfect final ball. Working hard to close down space whenever they pressed, Wilder's attackers found themselves trying to pick their way through a blue wall whenever the ball entered the away team's half. John Fleck discovered a much when Jason Lowe put his body on the line to prevent his drive reaching Remi Matthews.
But the Wanderers goalkeeper was beaten soon after the interval when Sharp burst down the right flank and, as Matthews advanced to tighten the angle, spotting his fellow centre-forward had charged forward in support. Rather than try a shot of his own, Sharp squared the ball and McGoldrick, squeezing in front of his marker, slid home.
Sharp doubled United's advantage in the 73rd minute, moments after Wanderers had introduced Josh Magennis to try and chase the game. Oliver Norwood's swept a free-kick across the six yard box which was duly turned beyond Matthews who remained rooted to the spot.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O'Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Duffy (Stearman 76), Sharp (Dowell 86), McGoldrick (Madine 79).Not used: Moore, Lundstram, Johnson, Stearman, Hogan.
Bolton Wanderers: Matthews, Taylor, Loew, Vela (Magennis 69), Hobbs, Connolly, O'Neil, Wheater, Connell, Ameobi, Donaldson. Not used: Buckley, Noone, Murphy, Wilson, Williams, Grounds.
Referee: Keith Stroud (Hampshire).