John Obi Mikel might have been guilty of playing to the gallery when he described the Championship as a more demanding competition than the Premier League, but Sheffield United discovered it can still prove a Herculean test of a team’s tactical accumen and improvisational skills before a ball had even been kicked.
With two of his most influential performers ruled-out through injury and suspension, Chris Wilder was forced to delve deep into his box of strategic tricks ahead of last night’s game against Middlesbrough, as the hosts attempted to limit the disruption caused by the loss of first Chris Basham and then Jack O’Connell.
It was not the ideal preparation for a fixture against any team in the division. Let alone one as well-drilled and organised as Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough. So given the circumstances, never mind the opposition, this felt like a particularly significant result in the battle for promotion.
Daniel Ayala’s red card, after substitute Richard Stearman’s header, limited the visitors’ threat. But Wilder’s side, who strengthened their grip on third and are now only two points behind second-placed Norwich City, deserved to prevail.
It is a measure of the progress United have made in recent months that they entered this game expecting to win and competing for promotion as well as pride. Middlesbrough, who named a £15m centre-forward and former Champions League winner in their squad, are what Wilder likes to describe as a “proper, powerful” football club. Still in receipt of a parachute payment, the experience Middlesbrough have been able to accumulate meant they arrived boasting the best head to head record in meetings between the top eight teams.
Mikel, who lifted nine major trophies with Chelsea including the cup with the “big ears”, was a formidable presence in their engine room while Ayala did a hatchet job at the back before the red mist descended just past the hour. However United, after an impressive couple of transfer windows, boast plenty of nous themselves and it was one of their older heads, Stearman, who made the difference.
Such is Wilder’s respect for Pulis, it would not have been a surprise to see him sporting a baseball cap and ice white trainers on the touchline before standing throughout his post-match press conference. The Middlesbrough manager is likely to be equally impressed by United’s reaction to the news that O’Connell was suffering from a tight hamstring, which saw them press ahead with their tried and tested methods rather than experiment with something completely alien. That relationship set the tone for a quaintly old-fashioned contest, where both sets of players tackled with venom and, barring the odd exception, refused to indulge in theatrics when they were on the receiving end.
Its defining moment was delightfully simple too, with Stearman rising to meet Oliver Norwood’s 62nd minite set-piece to claim his first of the season. The finish was emphatic and the delivery equisite.
Given Basham’s importance to the 3-5-2 formation Willder likes to employ, losing O’Connell, who is equally pivotal to United’s system, was a bitter blow. Their response was to recall both David McGoldrick, Martin Cranie and Mark Duffy while Kieran Dowell deputised for Enda Stevens at wing-back. A period of adjustment was inevitable but, after McGoldrick had seen a shot gathered by Darren Randolph, there came a move torn straight from the hosts’ well-worn playbook when Duffy, drifting innocuously inside, suddenly unleashed a vicious long-range drive the Republic of Ireland international did well to save.
A speculative attempt from George Saville apart, Middlesbrough’s threat came largely from set-pieces until Jordan Hugill tried his luck from distance just before the break.
Dean Henderson, whose mistakes had helped United snatch a draw from the jaws of victory five days earlier at Villa Park, entered the match under scrutiny but showcased his mental strength by punching clear from Ayala when others in his position might have flinched. It was the first of several aerial challenges the goalkeeper faced down as Middlesbrough searched for any chinks in his confidence. Any doubts about those were exorcised when Henderson flung himself through the air to deny Hugill during the closing stages of the first-half before palming clear under pressure from the centre-forward soon after the re-start.
Madine’s introduction changed the dynamic of United’s attack and, as the hour mark approached, he got the better of Ayala as they wrestled to reach an Norwood centre. When the Spaniard appeared to haul back the striker at the vital moment, Bramall Lane held its breath. But Andy Woolmer, not for the first time, saw things completely differently to the majority of those inside the stadium. However, Stearman took things out of the referee’s hands when he converted from Norwood. Moments later, the odds swung further in United’s favour when Ayala, having already been cautioned for a foul on McGoldrick, received his second in seven minutes after upending Dowell.
United: Henderson, Stevens, Egan, Cranie, Dowell, Baldock (Stearman 44), Norwood, Fleck, Duffy (Madine 46), Sharp (Coutts 88), McGoldrick. Not used: Moore, Lundstram, Bryan, Hogan.
Middlesbrough: Randolph. Obi Mikel, Friend, Ayala, Shotton, Fry, Howson (Van la Parra 81), Flint (Downing 34), Saville (Assombalonga 66), Wing, Hugill. Not used: Konstantopoulos, Clayton, Fletcher, Besic.
Referee: Andy Woolmer (Northamptonshire)