Sheffield United: Own goal keeps alive Blades’ play off hopes

Sheffield United players celebrate after an own goal by Stevenage's John Mousinho opened the scoring at Bramall Lane
Sheffield United players celebrate after an own goal by Stevenage's John Mousinho opened the scoring at Bramall Lane
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For long periods of last night’s match complacency, rather than Stevenage, appeared to be Sheffield United’s greatest enemy.

But, having successfully negotiated this potential banana skin of a fixture against a club fighting for its League One life, manager Nigel Clough was in no mood to be too harsh on his players.

Jamie Murphy tries to burst past Luke Jones.

Jamie Murphy tries to burst past Luke Jones.

Yes, he acknowledged afterwards, the scoreline failed to reflect United’s superiority although Stevenage did grow in stature during the second-half. However, with sixth-placed Peterborough stumbling to defeat at Bradford City, the result keeps their faint hopes of achieving a top six finish alive.

“If you’d have told us not so long ago that we’d be in with any sort of shout we wouldn ‘t have believed it,” Clough said. “But that just goes to show how far the boys have come.”

John Mousinho’s 10th minute own goal - Jamie Murphy forcing the mistake - proved enough to secure United’s 16th victory of the campaign and lift them to ninth in the rankings.

“At this stage, it’s all about winning,” Clough added. “Nothing else. Perhaps we could have got a few more (goals) to begin with but the main thing was that we won. And, make no mistake, that was hard work because they are scrapping for everything.”

Stevenage discovered United are now a much more formidable proposition that the one which drew 0-0 at The Lamex Stadium in December.

Clough’s side, on cruise control for most of the evening, have now won 11 of their 21 league outings since that stalemate compared to the visitors’ record of just five.

Those returns explain why United travel to Tranmere Rovers on Bank Holiday Monday comfortably positioned in mid-table while their opponents are spiralling towards relegation.

Having completed his first objective - saving United from experiencing the same fate - Clough’s attentions have now turned towards transforming them into promotion contenders.

The narrow margin of United’s victory, despite seldom being stretched by Graham Westley’s charges, underlines why a new centre- forward is his immediate priority in the transfer market.

The FA Cup semi-finalists could, indeed should, have sealed maximum points long before referee Mark Brown brought proceedings to a close.

Stevenage improved after the interval but returned home now seven from safety with three matches remaining.

Despite acknowledging United retain only a mathematical rather than realistic chance of qualifying for the play-offs, Clough has made it plain that any loss of focus will not be tolerated between now and the end of the campaign.

Indeed, such is the former England international’s desire to ensure his squad retains the focus which swept it into last weekend’s showpiece with Hull City, that he elected to name the same starting eleven which had appeared at Wembley only five days earlier.

Indeed two of their scorers in the capital - Murphy and Baxter - were responsible for creating the contest’s first two opportunities of note with the latter forcing Chris Day to scramble clear at the near post after his colleague’s pass had threatened to send Conor Coady scampering through.

However, it proved only a brief reprieve for a Stevenage team which arrived languishing at the bottom of the table and seemingly destined for League Two next term.

Again Murphy was the architect with Mousinho, on-loan from Preston North End, unable to prevent himself from turning the winger’s cross into his own net.

Stevenage, who have now failed to win any of their last nine games, had been rebuked by their manager earlier in the week for failing to follow orders during the recent defeat by Colchester. But no system or tactical planning would have enabled them to establish a foothold during the opening exchanges.

United, going about their business with a freedom they seldom enjoyed until embarking upon the 10 match winning streak earlier this year which effectively sealed their third tier status, continued to dominate both territory and possession.

Francois Zoko, who has scored three of his previous five goals against Yorkshire clubs, posed the greatest threat to a defence which has conceded less than a goal per game on home soil since August. But, when the Ivorian did escape the clutches of Neill Collins and Harry Maguire, his finishing portrayed the lack of confidence which has now seen him go 10 games without hitting the target.

Lucas Akins was presented with the chance to turn home when Mark Howard misjudged Zoko’s centre but lost his bearings at the crucial moment.

Murphy, instrumental in United’s climb out of the trouble they found themselves in when Clough was appointed six months ago, continued to torment a Stevenage back four which has kept only five clean sheets away from home.

Baxter was primed to turn home another low cross as the interval approached but Luke Jones, on for the injured Jon Ashton, cleared.

Moments later, Murphy was denied a clear penalty after colliding with the substitute inside Day’s area.

Stefan Scougall put United on the front foot immediately after the interval with a series of driving runs before they found themselves under pressure for the first time.

Luke Freeman should have equalised after John Brayford dithered on the ball but Howard came to his rescue before Baxter cleared Jones’ header off the line.