Match Report: Sheffield United 0 Preston North End 1

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It was not the send-off Sheffield United had envisaged as they plotted their final home match of the Championship season.

It was not the send-off Sheffield United had envisaged as they plotted their final home match of the Championship season.

But Chris Wilder and his players, whose frustration at the result was made even more acute by Preston North End's blatant time-wasting towards the end of the game, still received a wonderful reception from their supporters during the traditional post-map lap of honour.

Alan Browne's goal proved enough to secure the victory which keeps their top six hopes alive. United pushed, pressed and probed but a combination of profligate finishing and some stoic defending prevented them from claiming the breakthrough their application, if not their attention to detail, deserved.

On the balance of play, even a draw would have been a harsh result. Still, as they trooped around Bramall Lane following the final whistle, United still had reasons to feel proud of their efforts this term. In the hunt for play-off qualification until last weekend's defeat by Birmingham City, they have acquitted themselves well in a division many predicted would eat them up way back in August.

The sight of Kieron Freeman's name on the team sheet also confirmed that, despite some well-publicised issues off the pitch, Wilder's charges can become an even more formidable proposition next term. "We love you United, we do," boomed around the ground when referee James Linington blew the final whistle after six minutes of added time before: "Chrissy Wilder, he's one of our own."

Promotion might have eluded them but, without a shadow of a doubt, the pride is back. Try as they might, United could not force they early goal they craved despite finishing the opening period well on top. Wilder's men were not at their swashbuckling best.

But their manager, unlike Alex Neil who spent the opening 45 minutes in a state of near constant angst, appeared satisfied with the application on show. The second-half sparked straightaway, with Leon Clarke drawing a save and Sean Maguire nearly carving an opening for Callum Robinson at the other end of the pitch. Typically, just as United looked set to assert themselves, they conceded in scruffy fashion when Browne scrambled home.

Wilder has admitted that a failure to make pressure pay has undermined his squad's top six challenge. It will, therefore, have been disappointed but not surprised to see the same thing happen again. Still, if United could have chosen a problem to face after winning the League One title last term, that would have been at the top of their list.

Despite his deep connections with the club, Wilder rarely gets sentimental. Particularly when it comes to team selection. But even he will have been touched by the roar Freeman's name received when it was reade-out over the tannoy ahead of kick-off. It was no reflection on George Baldock's performances.

The former MK Dons defender has been superb since moving to South Yorkshire during the close season. But Freeman, a veteran of last season's League One title winning campaign, remains a hugely popular figure on the terraces. And, after battling back from serious injury, a prodigiously talented player.

It also seemed fitting that Billy Sharp, who like Wilder is a lifelong United supporter, returned to the starting eleven for the final home match of the season.

Indeed, it was the centre-forward who became the first member of the host's line-up to put Preston on the back foot after hunting down a huge clearance from Jamal Blackman. Neil's men responded with a rapid counter-attack but Lee Evans, altert to the danger, tracked back to block Robinson's shot.

Despite the potentially high-stakes, the match failed to spark until just before the interval when United wrestled control. Whether it was through mutual respect or good organisation, neither they nor Preston could build any type of momentum although Sharp did see a penalty appeal waved away when his cross struck Greg Cunningham's arm.

Earlier, Clarke had seen an effort deflected behind for a corner after barging his way through before Lee Evans sliced a long-range attempt wide after combining with John Fleck. Evans redeemed himself by sweeping an inch-perfect centre to Sharp's feet soon after but the centre-forward could not bring the ball down.

It signalled the start of United's best period so far as Clarke, reading Enda Stevens' intentions, darted towards the near post but diverted his team mate's pass straight into the chest of Declan Rudd. The deadlock was broken in the 56th minute.

But, much to Wilder's obvious disappointment, it was Preston who took the lead. Josh Harrop's shot was blocked but not held by Blackman and Browne reacted first to touch the ball into the net.

Sheffield United: Blackman, Stevens, Freeman (Baldock 76), O'Connell, Stearman (Leonard 80), Basham, L Evans (Brooks 65), Fleck, Duffy, Sharp, L Clarke. Not used: Moore, Lundstram, Donaldson, Lafferty.

Preston North End: Rudd, Cunningham, Pearson, Browne, Harrop (Gallagher 66), Johnson (T Clarke 66), Fisher, Davies, Huntington, Maguire (Barkhuizen 58), Robinson. Not used: Moult, Maxwell, Earl, Bodin.

Referee: James Linington (Newport). Attendance: 28,569