West Bromwich Albion 0, Sheffield United 1: Kieran Dowell’s early goal helps The Blades throw down another promotion marker
Another big game and, from Chris Wilder, more brave selection calls.
Once again, as has so often been the case since his appointment three years ago, the Sheffield United manager got them exactly right as the visitors deservedly beat West Bromwich Albion.
The win, which came courtesy of Kieran Dowell's first goal for the club, means United will prepare for next month's derby against Sheffield Wednesday ranked second in the Championship; two points behind leaders Norwich City and now four ahead of their latest opponents.
Coming against one of the division's most fancied teams - "a proper, powerful football club," as Wilder had described them earlier in the week - the performance which delivered it adds to the growing body of evidence that United are equipped to take their challenge right down to the wire.
Arguably it was during the second-half when Wilder's men impressed the most. Leading through Dowell's early finish and catching the eye with some enterprising football, they were forced to showcase different qualities after the break as West Brom searched for a route back into the contest.
Despite enjoying much less possession and content to attack on the counter, the game management United displayed was excellent.
Referee Oliver Langford deserves credit too. Although he missed Kieran Gibbs' reckless tackle on Kieron Freeman, which could easily have been punished with a red card, the official did spot Jay Rodriguez deliberately handing Mason Holgate's cross into the back of the net during the closing stages. With Dwight Gayle making his first appearance since being banned for diving, even in the heat of battle it seemed like a stupid thing for the former Southampton attacker to do.
Despite entering the unbeaten in five outings, United once again chose to rotate their squad with Billy Sharp, David McGoldrick and Dowell returning to the starting eleven. Given Sharp and McGoldrick's record in front of goal this term, a change in attack had been anticipated, even though Gary Madine had scored twice during last weekend's 4-0
thumping of Reading. But the decision not to hand Basham an immediate recall following suspension was a susprise.
And, as Wilder himself would remind, a reflection of United's new-found strength in depth following an impressive
transfer window. Predictably, with Leeds and Norwich City winning earlier in the day, there was plenty of intent from both sets of
players. But barring a speculative Jay Rodriguez effort from long-range, both defences appeared to have a grip on their brief until Dowell punished a lapse in West Brom's concentration after 14 minutes.
The midfielder, on loan from Everton, received the adulation of a sold-out away end for guiding the ball home. But Martin Cranie deserved a share of the plaudits for a quite brilliant first-time assist as Kieron Freeman's pass seemed destined to roll behind for a goal kick.
Darren Moore, a former team mate of Wilder's at Bradford City, is also not adverse to using the options at his disposal. Gayle, available again having been banned for diving, was selected ahead of Jefferson Montero while Gareth Barry was summoned from the bench. The fact a man of the 38-year-old's experience, with 53 England caps, a Premier League title and FA Cup winners medal in his trophy cabinet, can be used selectively is an indication of the resources Moore enjoys.
In a strange way, that could be the reason why he is still searching for the right combinations at the back. Marvin Johnson exposed that weakness in the hosts' armoury soon after Dowell's intervention when only a fine one-handed save from Sam Johnstone prevented him from doubling United's lead.
Still, it took another fine piece of play, this time from McGoldrick, to prod West Brom into life. No sooner had the United striker danced his way towards the edge of the six yard box and seen a low cross blocked, Moore's charges darted upfield in numbers. With Holgate and Matty Phillips in acres of space, the right pass would surely have led to an equaliser. But John Egan read Rodriguez' intentions and darted across to block.
With the Republic of Ireland international failing to appear for the start of the second period, United introduced Richard Stearman. They could easily have been forced to make another change soon after when Gibbs caught Kieron Freeman high on an ankle after going over the top of the ball. The challenge was high, late and poor but Langford's line of sight was clearly blocked and play rolled on. Not so, though, when Rodriguez turned Holgate's cross into United's net with his hand.
West Bromwich Albion: Johnstone, Gibbs, Livermore (Edwards 87), Phillips (Montero 65), Gayle, Barry, Rodriguez, Dawson, Hegazi (Adarabioyo 65), Harper, Holgate. Not used: Bond, Bartley, Johansen, Edwards, Field.Sheffield United: Henderson, Stevens, Egan (Stearman 46), Cranie (Basham 75), Freeman, Johnson, Norwood, Fleck, Dowell, Sharp, McGoldrick (Madine 65). Not used: Moore, Hogan, Coutts, Duffy. Referee: Oliver Langford (West Midlands).Attendance: 24,928