Sheffield United: Brilliance during 'big moments' can propel The Blades towards promotion, rival managers agree

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Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom cited the ability of his players to seize the “big moments” during games as one of the reasons why they began preparing for Thursday’s visit to Blackpool eight points clear of the Championship’s third placed team.

Efforts from loanees James McAtee, Ciaran Clark and Tommy Doyle, aided and abetted by superb performances by Iliman Ndiaye and Oliver Norwood, left United behind leaders Burnley on goal difference alone following a 3-1 victory over Coventry City at Bramall Lane.

Although the visitors made Heckingbottom’s side work hard for their seventh win in eight outings - Wes Foderingham denying Viktor Gyokeres from the penalty spot before the Swede reduced the deficit with a quarter-of-an-hour remaining - both the 45-year-year and his counterpart Mark Robins agreed that United’s quality and composure when it mattered had proved the difference.

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Reflecting on Foderingham’s save and Iliman Ndiaye’s memorable assist for McAtee’s opener, Heckingbottom told The Star: “We’ve shown that aspect to our character all the way through the season so far. We had to work hard where we could get into a position where we could be a little bit more pragmatic and that came, a lot, from having people who can take those big moments and who recognise them when they come along.

“We all know how good Wes can be in those situations and he demonstrated it again. Then there was Iliman as well, with that brilliant piece of work to set up James. But he (McAtee) was also perfect to get into the right position.”

“I thought Iliman was superb,” added Heckingbottom, who saw John Egan dismissed during the closing stages. “But then there was Oli (Norwood) as well, who was just like we know he can be all the way through. And there were others as well. I think being able to do that is really important. The same goes for the fact that the lads know that hard work is the thing that gets them into this position.”

Heckingbottom, who must now do without Egan at Bloomfield Road, watched United struggle to keep City at bay during the early exchanges as they proved why they had travelled to South Yorkshire as one of the competition’s most in-form clubs.

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McAtee, the Manchester City midfielder, halted their momentum after tracking Ndiaye as he surged upfield and bamboozled three opposition defenders before producing a perfectly weighted pass. Clark headed home his first for United since arriving from Newcastle last summer after meeting Norwood’s set-piece following Foderingham’s intervention. When Doyle, also borrowed from the Etihad Stadium, pounced seconds after being introduced as a substitute, United appeared home and dry. But Egan’s sending off having received a second yellow card, soon after Gyokeres had redeemed himself, threatened to tee-up an frantic finale. United, who introduced boyhood fan and US Open champion golfer Matt Fitzpatrick to the crowd ahead of kick-off, successfully negotiated their way through what could have been an awkward period though.

Ciaran Clark celebrates his first goal for Sheffield United: Andrew Yates / SportimageCiaran Clark celebrates his first goal for Sheffield United: Andrew Yates / Sportimage
Ciaran Clark celebrates his first goal for Sheffield United: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

“One of the differences,” Robins conceded, “Was the work of Nidiaye and McAtee. They (United) looked nervous to begin. But we are talking about facing top quality players here. They locked it down and we didn’t when we might have done.”