If the ability to win ugly is the hallmark of every successful team then, as David Edgar insisted, Sheffield United can approach the final 20 games of the season with considerable confidence.
Nigel Adkins’ side were forced to live on their wits for long periods of the second half as Colchester, having dragged themselves level when Tom Eastman cancelled out Billy Sharp’s early strike, discovered a zest and verve which made a mockery of the club’s perilous position towards the foot of the League One table.
But, after a Blades change of tactics, attitude and approach, they discovered this United team is a much more formidable proposition than the one they beat at Bramall Lane earlier this term.
“It’s absolutely key to have the ability to do that, vital in fact,” Edgar, whose injury-time goal propelled the visitors to a fifth victory in eight outings, said. “You are never going to have it all you own way during games or during the course of a season, especially when you are a big scalp. So it’s imperitive that you’ve got the desire to keep plugging away and grind things out.”
As both Edgar and Adkins conceded afterwards, United have played better this season and come away with little or no reward. Saturday’s performance, which moved them to within a point of sixth-placed Peterborough, is unlikely to have the purists’ pulses racing.
But, having seen the Blades’ soft underbelly exposed on countless occasions last year, the Canada international claimed it was a mark of their progress following Adkins’ decision to sacrifice some of his attacking principles and adopt a more conservative, pragmatic approach.
“Earlier in the season, I think there’s a fair chance we wouldn’t have gone on to win that,” Edgar acknowledged. “We might even have ended up losing it, but we’re much more resolute now. It’s because we’ve grown together as a group.
“We’re becoming much more resolute and hard to beat. We’ve got a foundation now and everything builds from there. It’s been a very tough week, mentally and in terms of the energy we’ve had to expend. So to come away and win like that makes it all the sweeter. We’re getting close to being the fittest team in the division now and, psychologically, we are much stronger too.”
With centre-forwards of Sharp and Matt Done’s calibre at their disposal, United can afford to place greater emphasis on defending rather than overwhelming opponents. Both were on target during Tuesday’s draw with Wigan Athletic which, 72 hours after a narrow defeat at Old Trafford, saw Adkins’ charges claw themselves back from 3-0 down.
Done, who netted twice against Gary Caldwell’s men, endured a frustrating afternoon in Essex before being withdrawn. But Sharp, who demonstrated his pugnacious streak during a touchline row with Colchester manager’s Kevin Keen, scored for the sixth time in seven outings after leaving Alex Wynter with a bad case of twisted blood.
Eastman, a towering presence at the heart of Colchester’s rearguard, led the comeback when he headed Marvin Sordell’s centre beyond George Long before Edgar scrambled Martyn Woolford’s corner home.
“It’s all about results now and, to be honest, I’d take 20 more of those,” Edgar said. “And, do you know what? We believe we can do it. You’ve got to be able to find a way to win. Football is never cut and dried, no matter how much we’d all like it to be, especially when you are a big scalp.
“I thought we played them off the park first half, so, credit to Colchester, they produced a response. We knew there was going to be one because that’s what happens up and down the country. But the important thing is that we dug it out. That tells you a lot about the group.”
United might not have been as dominant as Edgar claimed during the first period of Saturday’s contest but, patient in possession and tactically disciplined, they were well worth their lead.
Sordell caused them some problems despite being asked to operate in an unfamiliar wide role. However, after going close during the early skirmishes before watching Done test Jake Kean’s handling from long range, Sharp took full advantage of Matt Briggs’ lapse by outfoxing Wynter and sweeping the ball into the bottom corner of Colchester’s net.
Keen, appointed as Tony Humes’ successor four weeks ago, is still waiting for his first league win as a permanent manager but will have been delighted with the hosts’ response. Long was guilty of a slight miscalculation when Eastman equalised but produced excellent saves to deny Alex Gilbey and George Moncur before Edgar pounced when Chris Basham met Woolford’s delivery.
“Bash did really well to get in front of his marker and get the flick on,” Edgar said. “There’s no goal bonus for me, my job is to keep them out. But it was nice to score it in front of our own fans because they came a long way on a really cold day.”
Colchester United: Kean 6, Garvan 6, Briggs 6, Wynter 6, Gilbey 7, Porter 7, Moncur 7, Massey 6 (Ambrose 84), Eastman 7, Brindley 6 (Bonne 90), Sordell 7. Not used: Parish, Edwards, Wright, Kent, Bonne, Vincent-Young.
Sheffield United: Long 7, Sharp 7 (Sammon 90), McEveley 7, Coutts 6 (Flynn 71, 6), Done 6 (Baxter 63, 7), Basham 6, Hammond 7, Collins 6, Brayford 6, Woolford 6, Edgar 7. Not used: Howard, Reed, Campbell-Ryce
Referee: Brendan Malone (Wiltshire).