Chris Wilder has made no secret of the fact that, in order to succeed in League One, teams must fathom different ways to eke-out points.
That his Sheffield United side failed to claim all three after dominating almost all of this top of the table clash will be a disappointment.
After inexplicably finding themselves a goal down against second-placed Scunthorpe, who were later reduced to 10 men when Harry Toffolo was dismissed, Wilder can console himself with the knowledge his players are equipped to cope with a variety of different scenarios.
But, when the frustration subsides, the quality of their display should fill them with confidence ahead of next weekend’s meeting with third-placed Bolton Wanderers.
Paddy Madden’s strike, which threatened to turn the match on its header, would have crushed lesser squads. But Wilder has assembled a courageous, gutsy group of players since taking in May. Billy Sharp deservedly hauled them back on level terms seconds later before both Madden and substitute Jay O’Shea both struck the woodwork during a frantic finale. United’s lead at the top of the rankings remains at five points.
Despite making the short journey to South Yorkshire second in the table, captain Stephen Dawson admitted earlier this week that Scunthorpe’s confidence has taken a knock following a recent blip in form. It was a brutally honest but surprising admission and only served to further convince Chris Wilder further that this was a match United should seize by the scruff of the neck. They duly obliged with 45 minutes of high-octance, attacking football which left the spectators breathless and the visitors dangling on the ropes. Wilder, arms folded on the touchline, will have been delighted by the performance. But, when referee Mike Jones called a halt for half-time, disappointed it had not translated into an unassailable lead. Scunthorpe, who became increasingly ratty as the first period progressed, will have counted that a small victory.
They threatened to turn it into a big one when, two minutes after the re-start, Madden thrashed home from close range. But, two minutes later, Sharp levelled with his 21st of the season before Toffolo’s stupidity put Scunthorpe behind the eight ball again. Credit to the visitors; despite their numerical disadvantage, Alexander kept two men up front at all times. His ploy nearly worked when Madden saw a shot bounce back off the upright before O’Shea suffered the same fate. Scunthorpe actually improved following Toffolo’s exit and provided United with plenty to think about during the closing stages. But, the scoreline apart, United looked the more polished of these two teams.
Wilder has made great play of the fact his team are comfortable with their status as the division’s biggest and best club. Certainly, as the crowd cranked up the volume during the opening exchanges, they appeared inspired rather than cowed by the occasion. Sharp was inches away from handing United a third minute lead when, following some great work by Daniel Lafferty, he blazed a first time effort just over the crossbar. Lafferty looked to have run out of space when he chased down David Mirfin near the byline but managed to hook the ball around the centre-half and, ignoring a tug on his shirt, whip a low centre across the box. Eight minutes later, as United continued to press, Mark Duffy shot just past the near post before sinking to his knees in frustration. It was another fine chance carved thanks to the almost overbearing persistence of Wilder’s players.
The next opening, however, owed itself to a wonderful piece of invention. Alan Knill, Wilder’s assistant, has a reputation for devising unusual set-piece routines and, after Duffy had dragged his free-kick short and square, a near perfectly choreographed interchange ended with Paul Coutts seeing a low drive blocked.
Inevitably, United were unable to maintain the same level of dominance and, midway through the first-half, Dawson stemmed the tide with a speculative attempt from outside the penalty area which Simon Moore was able to watch fly wide. The respite, though, was only brief as Sharp and Hanson, showing no ill effects from the groin injury which forced him to miss Tuesday’s draw with Bristol Rovers, continued to cause problems. Murray Wallace produced a super tackle to deny Sharp an almost certain goal. Kevin van Veen a terrible one to leave Jack O’Connell flat out on the turf. Chris Basham was also caught late - this time by Dawson - as Scunthorpe’s temper frayed. It boiled over completely in the 52nd minute when Toffolo saw red. But not before a two goal burst really brought the game to life. First, in the 47th minute, Madden turned home Dawson’s centre after it snaked across ther six yard box. Two minutes later, Sharp pounced after Freeman, Hanson and finally John Fleck had played their part in a high-pressure move.
Hanson tried to dance through the penalty area in an attempt to score the game’s third goal. Madden nearly claimed it. So did O’Shea. But the scoreline remained the same.
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, O’Connell (Done 90), Basham, Sharp, Wright, Coutts, Hanson (Lavery 79), Freeman, Duffy, Lafferty (O’Shea 83). Not used: Long, Riley, Ebanks-Landell, Carruthers.
Scunthorpe United: Daniels, Wallace, Mirfin, Dawson, Madden (Davies 90), van Veen (Hopper 69), Morris, Bishop, Toffolo, Crooks (Mantom 78), Sutton. Not used: Anyon, Holmes, Goode, Toney.
Referee: Mike Jones (Chester).