They weren’t outclassed or completely overwhelmed. This was no Valentine’s Day massacre.
But, after watching Nigel Clough’s side become only the second League One team to win at Ashton Gate since March, Joe Bryan might want to revise his suggestion that Bristol City are now above affording clubs like Sheffield United special treatment.
Jamie Murphy’s goal, following two second-half finishes from new signing Matt Done, saw the visitors climb to fifth in the table and suggest that maybe, just maybe, the scramble for automatic promotion can not be described as a four-horse race just yet.
“I sensed it in the warm-up that we were going to have a good day,” Chris Basham, the United defender, said. “I sensed that now was the time that we really needed to kick and march on.
“It’s taken us a while. Even longer than I probably thought.
“But the gaffer has got his squad together now and the lads who have come in are proven at Championship level.
“There’s no more excuses for us. We’ve come here with a real intent.”
Professional, productive and, when the situation demanded. ruthlessly pragmatic, United went about their business with absolute conviction. Although far from perfect - the on-loan Matt Smith edging City ahead in fortuitious fashion towards the end of an intriguing if not absorbing opening period - Clough’s players lent further weight to the theory that, after another round of financial wheeling and dealing in the transfer market, the former England international is now equipped with the options required to fulfil his employers’ pre-season promise.
Basham, whose robust presence helped creative players like Murphy and Done to wreak havoc, explained there has been an emotional investment too.
“I’ve come from Blackpool in the summer, moved here, had a baby here and my family love coming here,” he said. “I love this club and it’s something I want to be a part of.
“It has really surprised me how quickly I’ve taken to the place and I know all of the others will tell you exactly the same thing too. I come in to training early because it’s just a great place to be.
“Everyone, Morgs (Chris Morgan) included, makes you feel so welcome, even though he’s been a part of the furniture for so long.
“You want to work hard for clubs like this and staff like this because they don’t come around very often.”
“You don’t come to Sheffield United, sign a three-year contract and want to go somewhere else,” Basham added. “I’m here for the long haul and I want to achieve something to make everyone proud.
“I can speak for a lot of the lads when I say that I’m here for the long haul. This place has got under our skin and it’s in our blood.
“Look at Jamie. He agreed a new contract recently and I’m sure there will have been a lot of people knocking on his door. But’s he’s shown faith in the manager, the staff and the club.”
Clough and his cohorts devised, as Steve Cotterill admitted afterwards, a game-plan to combat the threat posed by opponents boasting the best defensive record on home soil this term and second most prolific attack. Their players, albeit after a timely reminder, executed it to the letter.
“The gaffer absolutely b*******d us at half-time,” Basham continued. “We’d done well but created no shots.”
Andy Garner, the United coach, elaborated: “Over the course of the whole match I think we deserved it. “We had no problems with the display at half-time but there was a little bit of ranting and raving, not least from myself.
“Not with the possession, not with the way we set out, but to do all of that and not to test Frank Fielding at all was, well, disappointing.
“The manager told them, as he always does, that we hadn’t come here to try and get a draw. We’d come here to win.”
City’s progress has been so serene this season that Bryan, their 21-year-old winger, intimated beforehand they would treat Saturday’s contest no differently to any other. The accent, he claimed, would simply be on scoring goals.
For the 13th time in as many outings Smith, a striker Clough had himself tried to sign and who made his professional debut against United for Oldham four years ago, did exactly that when a deflected cross fell kindly into his path.
Iain Turner, again a more than able deputy for the injured Mark Howard, had no chance. Cotterill - “This is Sheffield United we’re talking about here. Not Rag-a***d Rovers.” - and Bryan’s colleague, Aden Flint, had been more cautious about the challenge Clough’s charges would pose.
Their suspicions proved correct when Basham seized possession and sent John Brayford, one of five recent arrivals to feature here, scampering down the flank soon after the restart. He in turn found Jason Holt who forced a superb reaction block from Fielding before Done made sure.
Done pounced again, and for the third time in only two outings after leaving Rochdale, when Murphy combined with Bob Harris whose goalline clearance had earlier prevented Jay Emmanuel-Thomas from restoring the hosts’ lead.
Another tackle from Basham, which Cotterill later insisted referee Graham Salisbury should have ruled a foul, set in motion the chain of events which ended with Murphy cutting inside Derrick Williams and finding the back of the net.
City remain four points clear at the top and 16 ahead of United who have played two fixtures less than second-placed Swindon Town. The odds might still be stacked against them, but Basham, citing the flexibility United now enjoy, is convinced they can be overcome.
“Some lads were unlucky not to be involved but in football,that’s what it’s like,” he said.
“Sparky (Marc McNulty) was one of them because he’s our top goalcsorer, a great finisher and generally top lad.
“But went out there with gritty lads and lads who were going to put in a shift like Terry Kennedy. He’s a great lad who always wants to learn. That was the right decision and the gaffer got every single one of them spot on out there.”
BRISTOL CITY: Fielding 7, Little 6***, Williams 6, Flint 7, K Smith 6, Elliott 7*, M Smith 6, Emmanuel-Thomas 7, L Freeman 6, Ayling 7, Bryan 7**. Substitutes: Richards, Wagstaff***(80), Saville, Cunningham**(77), Agard*(71) 6, Pack, Tavernier.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Turner 7, Harris 7, Brayford 8, Basham 8, Doyle 7, Murphy 8, Baxter 6*, Done 8**, Coutts 8, McEveley 8, Kennedy 8. Substitutes: Willis, McNulty, Campbell-Ryce, Reed, K Freeman***, Adams**(82), Holt*(23)***(90) 7.
MANAGERS’ VIEW - Chris Morgan (United coach): “We had words at half-time. To come in 1-0 down we thought it wasn’t on. Credit to the boys, they had a real good go second half and they played like we know they can play.”
MANAGERS’ VIEW - Steve Cotterill: “I think that we got done in the second half. It’s funny because we went in 1-0 up at half-time and I don’t think we were the better team in the first half. But I thought we were in the second and lost.”
REFEREE WATCH: Graham Salisbury (Lancashire). Sheffield United and Bristol City had three players cautioned apiece. Chris Basham, Paul Coutts and Michael Doyle received yellow cards for the visitors while Luke Ayling, Mark Little and substitute Scott Wagstaff were the City names to join them in the book.
HERO: Matt Done will rightfully dominate the headlines after scoring twice but this was a team performance in every sense from Sheffield United. Iain Turner and Terry Kennedy did everything that was asked of them after being named in the starting 11.
KEY MOMENT: Whatever Nigel Clough, Andy Garner and Chris Morgan told the Sheffield United players at half-time, it worked a threat. They did not deserve to be losing and, like Bristol City, demonstrated plenty of attacking intent. But, before the break, they did not manage to achieve an end product.
VIEWPOINT: Sheffield United have now beaten the League One leaders - Swindon Town and Bristol City - in the space of a month. The addition of players such as Matt Done, Paul Coutts and John Brayford is bringing the best out of what was already a very capable bunch.