Sheffield United’s have spent the past 24 months scouring the transfer market for a prolific centre-forward with varying degrees of success.
But Marc McNulty provided further evidence that the most suitable candidate to fill this long-standing vacancy might already be on the payroll at Bramall Lane, by scoring the goal which set them on the path to victory over Yeovil Town last night.
McNulty’s strike, his fifth in seven outings, illustrated exactly why Nigel Clough, the United manager, was so keen to acquire his services from Livingston during the close season.
A real predator’s effort, as they call it in the trade.
But the sight of United waiting until midway through the second-half before stamping their authority on a match they dominated for long periods served to remind that, for all its promise, Clough’s revamped side is not the finished article yet.
The three points which lift them to sixth in the League One table, with a game in hand on Peterborough in second, should have been secured much earlier than the 67th minute when Jamie Murphy profited from Louis Reed’s pass to embellish his own excellent individual display.
Yeovil might not be the biggest or more glamorous name in the business but, as United discovered to their cost 17 months ago, they can punch above their weight.
Indeed, despite entering last night’s game having won only 14 times since beating their hosts in the play-off semi-finals two seasons ago, Gary Johnson’s squad travelled north boasting the fourth best record against clubs from the top-half of the division this term.
Nevertheless, the fact Yeovil started the evening in 19th place, 12 behind United and only two above the relegation zone, confirmed they are a very different beast to the one which had triumphed on that sunny May afternoon at Huish Park.
They made United work hard for their win and, on several occasions, tested the hosts’ resolve.
But Clough’s team, after a faltering start, is beginning to build-up a head of steam.
Like Johnson, whose spat with chairman John Fry recently saw Yeovil make headlines for all the wrong reasons, Clough knows football can be a very fickle business.
Saturday’s victory over Yorkshire rivals Bradford City had taken the former England international’s win ratio to a remarkable 54 per cent.
However, despite warning that a hectic summer of transfer activity could have a detrimental effect upon United’s consistency levels, Clough has been forced to confront questions about both his recruitment policy and preference for playing one up front; a tactic he persisted with after awarding McNulty only his seventh start following a summer move from Almondvale Stadium.
The young centre-forward, rewarded for a series of sparkling cameos from the bench, repaid his manager’s faith by scoring his sixth goal in United colours while 17-year-old Reed produced an accomplished performance.
Indeed, it was the youngster’s effort from the edge of the penalty area which set in motion the chain of events that ended with McNulty breaking the deadlock.
Reed was also instrumental in creating United’s second - a perfectly threaded pass sending Murphy scampering clear - and seems destined to become a permanent fixture in their midfield sometime soon.
Johnson named the same first choice eleven which had ended a run of three straight defeats by drawing with Swindon Town three days earlier.
Injuries to Paddy McCarthy, Jose Baxter and Jay McEveley denied Clough the same luxury.
And Yeovil nearly exploited the makeshift central defensive pairing of Chris Basham and Harrison McGahey in the ninth minute when James Hayter, previously of Doncaster Rovers, blazed over the crossbar from close-range.
But McNulty demonstrated the awareness and prowess in front of goal which has prompted Clough to describe him as United’s “best finisher” by prodding home in the 15th minute, when Artur Krysiak spilled Reed’s shot.
Basham and Craig Alcock, who progressed through the ranks at Yeovil before eventually departing for Peterborough, were inches away from doubling their lead when the Pole allowed a looping centre to drift over his head soon after.
A sliced clearance under pressure from McNulty further highlighted Krysiak’s vulnerability although United appeared far from assured themselves and only a superb tackle from Bob Harris prevented Jordy Hiwale from equalising after escaping his marker.
McGahey was also forced to intervene when Joel Grant, the Jamaica international, attempted to dance his way through a crowded penalty area.
However, although Yeovil threatened in patches, it was United who continued to force the issue with Murphy a particular source of discomfort to the rearguard of the visitors with his runs from deep.
Stefan Scougall wasted a glorious opportunity to extend United’s advantage when he seized upon Ryan Inniss’ misjudged pass, only for Krysiak to redeem himself while McNulty enjoyed a brief sight of goal before being crowded out.
Michael Higdon replaced his fellow marksman after serving a three match suspension while Baxter also entered the fray during the closing stages.
But it was Reed and Murphy who finally shattered Yeovil’s resistance when the latter darted through the middle to receive the teenager’s fine pass and beat the advancing Krysiak.