AN ATTACKING master class from Ched Evans propelled Sheffield United back into League One’s automatic promotion places last night.
Danny Wilson, the United manager, has loaded his side with creative talent since taking charge at Bramall Lane 10 months ago.
But, as John Sheridan’s Chesterfield discovered to their cost, none of the options at Wilson’s disposal are quite as potent as the former Manchester City protégé who claimed the first senior hat-trick of his domestic career in 15 explosive second-half minutes.
United, nudging arch-rivals Sheffield Wednesday back into third with seven matches of the campaign remaining, seemed destined to endure an awkward evening against opponents who, before the break at least, demonstrated enough to suggest they will not go down without a fight.
But Evans, taking his tally for the season to 30, had different ideas and swung the contest decisively in the South Yorkshire club’s favour after Franck Moussa had earlier cancelled-out Lee Williamson’s opener.
Chesterfield remain rooted to the bottom of the table.
However, despite seeing their soft underbelly exposed by Evans’ prowess, they should take some comfort from the fact they are unlikely to encounter such a ruthless striker again this term.
Over 20 years have passed since Wilson and Sheridan first pooled their resources in Sheffield Wednesday’s midfield.
But, despite being polar opposites as players, the two men share a common bond.
The free-flowing, expansive football they encourage their respective charges to employ was in evidence throughout an absorbing encounter.
However, it was United who possessed the greater cutting edge and so ultimately prevailed.
Quick to compliment his old pal on Chesterfield’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy success three days earlier, Wilson had nevertheless warned that United’s goodwill would not stretch to the pitch.
United heeded their manager’s call by starting firmly on the front foot with Evans and Kevin McDonald both launching powerful runs forward.
But, until Matthew Lowton forced a fine reaction save from Tommy Lee after nearly half an hour, it was Sheridan’s men who possessed the greater ingenuity.
Craig Westcarr, one of two changes to the eleven which had started Sunday’s capital showpiece, tested the resolve of a United defence missing Harry Maguire (virus) with some intricate touches while Jordan Bowery looked to take a more direct route to goal.
Wilson admitted he had resisted the temptation to fuel Chesterfield’s post-match celebrations by dispatching some complimentary champagne to Wembley following their success over Swindon Town.
There were no signs of lethargy from the visitors with Bowery and Josh Thompson both worrying United goalkeeper Steve Simonsen.
But no need for Machiavellian gestures of goodwill either thanks to Evans’ superb second-half master class.
Nevertheless, Richard Cresswell was inches away from connecting with a Lee Williamson set-piece midway through the opening period with the midfielder following suit at the far post when Evans attempted to turn provider soon after.
Williamson has emerged as one of United’s most influential figures in recent weeks and it was his perfectly executed pass which created the evening’s first real chance of note.
With England under-21 and Olympic coach Stuart Pearce watching from the stands, Lowton showed a deftness of touch to bring the ball under control but Lee proved his equal.
Bowery sent Simonsen scampering across his line with a curling strike which flew inches wide before Thompson also went close following a well-worked corner routine.
But fittingly it was Williamson who briefly stopped Chesterfield’s revival in its tracks when he found the roof of the net with a thunderous 38th minute shot after Stephen Quinn, Marcus Williams and Evans had combined.
United’s opponents had demonstrated their durability beneath the iconic arch and they obliged again when Moussa’s 43rd minute equaliser prompted an inquest in the host’s hastily reshuffled rearguard.
Neill Collins, berating those around him after Westcarr’s assist, clearly had concerns about the amount of space the on-loan Leicester midfielder had been afforded.
But there was no doubt about the quality of the finish.
Unlike the call from referee Simon Hooper which resulted in Evans powering home from the spot three minutes after the re-start.
The Wales international was clearly tripped as he rolled Alex Mendy following a corner.
However the incident appeared to have occurred outside of the box.
Only a stray pass from Evans prevented Cresswell from extending United’s lead as the action ebbed and flowed.
Indebted to Lowton for denying the dangerous Bowery, United ruthlessly seized the initiative with Evans converting Williamson’s 60th minute set-piece before claiming his 30th goal of a remarkable season moments later from McDonald’s excellent slide-rule pass.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Simonsen 7, Lowton 7, Collins 7, Hill 6, Williams 6, Williamson 8, McDonald 6, Doyle 6, Quinn 7 (O’Halloran 82), Evans 8 (Beattie 78), Cresswell 7 (Hoskins 61). Not used: Howard, Egan.
CHESTERFIELD: Lee 6, Trotman 6, Thompson 7, Allott 6 (Randall 69), Westcarr 7 (Boden 69), Mendy 6, Hurst, Bowery 7 (Ajose 69), Talbot 6, Smith 6, Moussa 7. Not used: Whitaker, Ridehalgh.