QUITE what Sir Tom Finney made of Preston North End’s tactics must remain open to debate.
But Ched Evans’ contribution to a victory which strengthens Sheffield United’s grip on League One‘s second automatic promotion place, would certainly have earned a nod of approval from Deepdale’s favourite footballing son.
Against opponents who, under Graham Westley’s tutelage, appear determined to follow an altogether different route to the one carved by their famous forefathers, two emphatic finishes from the Wales international striker enabled United to cut through the gamesmanship and turn the tables on a North End side at times seemingly more interested in playing mind games than the match itself.
“Ched can give us an advantage and an edge over the opposition,” Danny Wilson, the United manager, said. “When people see his name on the team sheet they’ll worry because his goals demand that respect. It’s very much a psychological boost.
“I really can’t fault him.”
Evans, who had earlier missed a penalty, scored his 20th and 21st goals of the season in emphatic style after Graham Cummins had headed North End in front.
The first, after Harry Maguire, Richard Cresswell and Stephen Quinn had combined, saw him pounce from close-range when Thorsten Stuckmann had failed to smother Ryan Flynn’s shot.
The second, a powerful half-volley from distance after North End had cleared Lee Williamson’s corner, revealed the confidence coarsing through the Wales international’s veins at present.
“Ched is going great guns at the moment,” Wilson continued. “People here have got belief in him and quite rightly so when you see what he’s capable of doing.
“Even when he didn’t get the penalty, we always knew he’d keep on enjoying chances because he’s working so hard and doesn’t get disappointed. His record speaks for itself but his all-round play is improving all the time too.
“It’s a pleasure to have Ched around because he’s so respectful to everyone. I can’t speak highly enough of him.”
Westley, who in a previous guise as Stevenage manager had condemned United to defeat earlier this term, insisted Wilson’s men could be fazed by the sight of him stalking the technical area before crossing the Pennines in search of another famous win.
But Wilson’s men are an altogether different proposition to the team which succumbed at Broadhall Way five months ago.
Durable and possessing guts as well as guile, they were certainly dazed when a series of crunching North End challenges, most notably Alex Marrow’s lunge on United captain Michael Doyle, set the tone for what proved to be an abrasive contest.
But they were most definitely not confused despite at times struggling to shatter North End’s stoic resolve.
Wilson insisted: “Those were an excellent three points. Everyone could see how tough it was out there.”
Not that United’s afternoon was a complete success, with Evans producing a spot-kick which, by his own admission, was “completely terrible” and, more importantly, Kevin McDonald limping-off midway through the first half with a hamstring injury which seems certain to rule the midfielder out of Sunday’s Steel City derby at Hillsborough.
It’s a huge blow given McDonald’s influence in recent weeks but, Wilson insisted, cushioned by Nick Montgomery’s continued presence at Bramall Lane despite being courted by several Championship clubs during the recent transfer window.
“Monty has been really unlucky of late because the players who came in when he was out have done ever so well,” Wilson said. “But there’s always an opportunity in football and we know Monty is a quality player because he’s shown it time and time again.
“Credit goes to him and also the people higher up at this club for the fact that he’s still here. Situations like this demonstrate why it is so important to have that depth of cover.
“Macca felt it go straight away,” Wilson added. “So that’s not a good sign.
“It’s unlikely that he’ll play (against Wednesday) but there’s always a chance. We’ll know more later on.”
Westley has wasted no time stamping his mark on North End’s squad, with seven of members of their starting line-up, including Cummins, drafted in since his appointment last month.
Stuckmann, a towering German, embellished his reputation as a penalty specialist by saving his fifth spot-kick of the campaign after Evans had been hauled back by Aaron Brown before also foiling Cresswell with his legs.
North End took the lead against the run of play when Cummins, a recent signing from Cork City, met Nicky Hunt’s cross to claim his first goal in English football before Evans restored parity.
Stuckmann produced another wonderful block to thwart Matt Lowton, with Brown hacking United substitute James Beattie’s effort off the line on the rebound.
But from the resulting corner, he could only watch as Evans unleashed a vicious thunderbolt which tore into the back of North End’s net.
Preston North End’s Alex Marrow was fortunate to escape with only a caution after a late second minute lunge on Sheffield United captain Michael Doyle. Graham Cummins and Aaron Brown followed their team mate into the referee’s notebook.