Nigel Clough, the Sheffield United manager, left his players under no illusions about the importance of today’s
MK Dons, nine points and two places above the visitors in the League One table before kick-off, might not be the most iconic name in the division. But after thrusting themselves into the promotion mix they do feature, like Clough’s team, among its most prize scalps.
With United starting the fixture a further six points off the top two pace, they had travelled south knowing that victory, or a share of the spoils at the very least, was absolutely vital from this game.
So Clough will have been encouraged to see his side start in encouraging fashion; piecing together some calm, composed moves as they edged towards David Martin’s penalty box.
Craig Alcock, replacing Ryan Flynn at full-back, was instrumental in most during the opening exchanges, presenting Jose Baxter with a valuable outlet along United’ right flank before looking to send Jamal Campbell-Ryce on his way.
The former Jamaica international reached the by-line on several occasions before producing a cross. But no United player could get the vital touch. On a slippery surface, Alcock did lose his footing just before the quarter-of-an-hour mark but Michael Doyle ensured the hosts could not break.
Carl Baker found the side-netting for MK Dons soon after but, in the 15th minute, a fine chance did come United’s way way. Campbell-Ryce won a corner which was taken by Baxter but Terry Kennedy, escaping his marker to meet the ball, glanced it across the six yard box rather than towards goal.
The young defender took out his frustrations on Samir Carruthers in between the two technical areas with a heavy but not cynical foul.
The action continued to be considered rather than fast and furious. But, as they approached the midway point of the first half, MK Dons began to find some rhythm. Benik Afobe, now of Wolverhampton Wanderers, has left big boots to fill in Buckinghamshire. But Delli Alli seemed determined to prove he is up to the task, first by nearly taking advantage of a rare miscommunication between Mark Howard and Jay McEveley to bear down on goal before seeing an angled drive saved following a dangerous run.
United responded when Doyle saw a shot deflected behind for another corner.
MK Dons, with a neat counter-attack, gained one themselves in the 31st minute but, like Baxter’s, it was comfortably cleared.
Kennedy escaped his marker again, this time at the far post, when Baxter swept a superb 40th minute free-kick across the box. The centre-half claimed he had been wrestled to the floor but referee Lee Mason, who cautioned Baxter soon after, remained unmoved and the ball bobbled out.
In the 42nd minute, Howard produced an excellent save to turn Baker’s long range effort around the foot of his right hand post.
Campbell-Ryce could, indeed should, have given United a 44th minute lead when he beat the offside trap from Harris’ free-kick but Martin saved. Harris was then booked for deliberately stopping Carruthers from wriggling his way through as the game finally began to open up.
Reed entered the fray for United when Scougall failed to reappear for the start of the second-half.
Howard gathered a smart drive from Spence after Murphy had unwittingly presented his marker with the ball when he looked to mount a 48th minute counter-attack following some excellent play from Baker.
Baxter went one better - dragging the ball backwards and forwards beneath his book - before laying it off the Harris but although he in turn found Reed, the substitutes’ shot flew just wide from distance.
Baxter drifted infield again soon after but, after creating the room to shoot, saw the ball deflect to safety off the back of an MK Dons defender.
Campbell-Ryce powered forward beyond Dean Lewington before being crowded out as he reached the edge of the area. Both teams had pressed without either managing to wriggle clear of the other’s clutches. And, aware of what was at stake, were understandably keen not to over commit.
In the 64th minute, United made their second change and MK Dons their first.
Higdon replaced McNulty for the visitors and Jonson Clarke-Harris came on for his new MK Dons team mate Dean
Bowditch. Three minutes later, the hosts took the lead when BAKER pierced United’s rearguard before wrong-footing Howard who had been left horribly exposed.
Campbell-Ryce did superbly well in the 73rd minute, just before McFadzean was booked for a foul on Baxter, to rob Lewington by the toucline before drilling a low centre across the six yard area. But McEveley, still forward from an earlier free-kick, was inches away from getting the touch which would almost certainly have turned it home.
Higdon’s header set in motion the chain of events which saw United win an 80th minute corner as they searched for the equaliser which would have ensured the scoreline accurately reflected the action. However, for once, Baxter’s aim let him down and it was comfortably cleared at the near post.
Che Adams camed on for United soon after - Alcock was the player to make way - as Clough switched to a back three. He immediately won a free-kick right on the edge of the area after exchanging passes with Murphy. Strangely, with both Baxter and Harris still on the pitch, the former Ilkeston youngster assumed responsibility for taking it.
Adams managed to thread the ball through the wall but not beyond Martin who comfortably saved.
Randall replaced Carruthers during the closing stages before Ben Reeves made way for George Baldock.
And MK Dons held on.
MK DONS: Martin, Lewington, McFadzean, Kay, Bowditch, Reeves, Grigg, Spence, Bakewr, Alli, Carruthers. Substitutes: McLoughlin, Hodson, Green, Randall, Baldock, Hitchcock, Clarke-Harris.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard, Alcock, Harris, Doyle, Murphy, Scougall, Baxter, McNulty, McEveley, Campbell-Ryce, Kennedy. Substitutes: Long, McGahey, Higdon, Reed, Dimaio, Adams, K Wallace.
REFEREE: Lee Mason (Greater Manchester).