A first win in charge of Sheffield United for Chris Wilder and, perhaps fittingly given the reaction he received from the away supporters, it came against his former club.
After being taunted with claims he was “getting sacked in the morning” when Kane Hemmings fired Oxford United ahead, Billy Sharp and James Wilson ensured the 48-year-old had the last laugh with second-half efforts in front of The Kop.
Wilder, who led the visitors back into the Football League during a six year spell at the Kassam Stadium, kept his celebrations low key at the final whistle. But, deep inside, he must have felt like doing a celebratory lap of Bramall Lane.
Goals, as Wilder had acknowledged in midweek, change games. Oxford, much to his dismay, scored the first one here when Hemmings reacted first after Simon Moore had parried Liam Sercombe’s fierce drive. United passed their test of character by posing the visitors a series of questions during an intense first-half.
They continued to drive the action forward after the interval too with Stefan Scougall in particular a constant menance at both ends of the pitch. So, when Sharp dragged them level with 25 minutes remaining, it was certainly deserved. Likewise when Wilson powered home from Mark Duffy soon after.
The momentum had swung so far in United’s favour, there was a sense of inevitability about the defender’s goal.
A combination of bumps, bruises and disappointing results meant it was almost inevitable that United’s starting eleven would change. Jake Wright, the former Oxford captain, was drafted-in to partner James Wilson at centre-half while Leon Clarke was replaced by Done.
Appleton, meanwhile, kept faith with the same eleven which beat Peterborough last weekend. New loan signing, Everton’s Ryan Ledson, began the contest on the bench.
One charge frequently levelled at United in recent weeks is that they have proven too easy to boss in midfield. Chris Basham probably had that in mind when he was cautioned for a scything challenge on Chey Dunkley with less than 30 seconds gone before swarming all over Sercombe soon after. Oxford looked to wrestle back the advantage by peppering United’s rearguard with looping high balls. It was a ploy which would have paid-off in the third minute but for Moore. The goalkeeper, making his first appearance at this stadium since leaving Cardiff City, dashed off his line to clear from Wes Thomas. But Oxford, content to pass the ball across their back four whenever United attempted to press, persisted and carried an obvious threat on the counter-attack.
Appleton will have been delighted with the start his team made. Wilder, wearing a tracksuit rather than his usual suit, less so. Although there was plenty of tenacity, United’s failure to dominate possession allowed their opponents to establish a strong foothold in the game. Moore, who had earlier gathered Chris Maguire’s long-range attempt, saw the former Sheffield Wednesday player hit the side-netting soon after. But Oxford’s persistence told in the 17th minute when Hemmings found the back of the net after Moore had parried Sercombe’s initial shot.
United’s response included a blocked shot from Done and a Chris Hussey free-kick which only just eluded Wilson who had peeled away from his marker at the far post. Any sort of touch would surely have resulted in parity being restored. Although Hussey has struggled to impose himself during open play so far this term, his delivery from dead-ball situations is another matter. A 25th minute set-piece was deflected onto the roof of the net as United enjoyed their best period of the contest before Simon Eastwood did well to save from Kieron Freeman following a well-worked move. Scougall, who like Basham was clearly not content to go down without a fight, was responsible for creating a 40th minute chance for Done but again Eastwood proved equal to the task.
United withdrew Hussey at the interval with Jack O’Connell taking his place while Oxford swapped Aaron Martin and Joe Skarz. Josh Ruffels benefited from a huge slice of fortune in the 51st minute when he deflected a cross towards his own goal but the ball held up just long enough in the air for Eastwood to adjust his footing and gather in front of The Kop.
If there was a doubt about Moore’s handling for Hemmings’ goal, he redeemed himself by preventing captain John Lundstram extending Oxford’s lead following a clever drag-back by Maguire. In the 65th minute, though, United’s industry received its reward when Done feinted to shoot before crossing instead for Sharp to prod home at the far post. Eight minutes after Sharp’s dramatic intervention, Wilson was the next United player to soak-up the adulation of the crowd when he headed home a free-kick conceded the the latest in a long line of fouls on Scougall.
Sheffield United: Moore, Hussey (O’Connell 46), Basham, Scougall (Fleck 80), Sharp (Clarke 86), Done, Wright, Coutts, Freeman, Wilson, Duffy. Not used: Ramsdale, Calvert-Lewin, Whiteman, Chapman.
Oxford United: Eastwood, Skarz (Martin 46), Lundstram, Sercombe, Thomas, Maguire, MacDonald (Rothwell 74), Ruffels, Hemmings (Taylor 67), Edwards, Dunkley. Not used: Crowley, Buchel, Roberts, Ledson.
Referee: Nicholas Kinseley (Essex).