These are the occasions, Chris Wilder insisted beforehand, which tell managers plenty about their character of their teams.
Midweek games against opponents low on points, even lower on confidence and supposedly with nothing to lose.
Whether or not it was Shrewsbury Town’s obvious limitations, Sheffield United’s superiority or a combination of both which proved decisive at Greenhous Meadow last night will not bother Wilder a jot. United stretched their unbeatean run in League One competition to nine matches and closed the gap on leaders Scunthorpe to four points.
The contest also proved a landmark moment for Billy Sharp who, until he stooped to convert a second-half corner at the far post, had not scored a brace since Boxing Day 2012. With a clinical finish from Daniel Lafferty sandwiched in between, United’s captain celebrated the end of his 142 match wait to achieve that feat by gesticulating furiously towards the travelling support. Wilder, meanwhile, limited himself to a nod of the head and brief fist pump.
United were a cut above the hosts in all departments. But there is still a long, long way to go before the promotion places are decided and, starting with Saturday’s meeting with fellow high-flyers Bradford City, more arduous fixtures to come.
Wilder’s theory that this contest would be a tougher test than Saturday’s visit to Valley Parade was only partly correct.
Shrewsbury did not start the fixture like a side hoping to avoid a fourth successive defeat. Indeed, when the opportunity arose, they looked to burst forward and test the visitors’ resolve.
The trouble was, from caretaker Danny Coyne’s perspective at least, United’s passing and movement was a class apart during the opening exchanges. Wilder’s men combined industry with invention while Shrewsbury relied upon perspiration instead.
Quality eventually won the day with Sharp breaking the deadlock with a rasping 25 yard shot early in the second-half before finding the back of the net again after Lafferty’s intervention following a Paul Coutts pass.
Ethan Ebanks-Landell has won hearts and minds as quickly as United have points since his arrival at Bramall Lane two months ago. But this United squad, Wilder is always keen to stress, has been built on team spirit rather than talented individuals. So, speaking on the eve of a fixture he warned was laced with danger, the 49-year-old resisted the temptation to heap even more praise on Ebanks-Landell’s shoulders, preferring to namecheck his defensive colleagues instead.
One of those, former Oxford captain Jake Wright, has also been hugely influential. Albeit without generating the type of headlines his fellow centre-half has enjoyed in recent weeks. Going about his business with quiet, calm assurance, Wright entered this contest yet to taste defeat in a United jersey and having reduced the number of goals they concede, with him in the starting eleven at least, to less than one per game. Wilder’s squad has accumulated twice as many points with him at the heart of their rearguard than without.
Wright and Ebanks-Landell once again emerged as important figures as Shrewsbury took an unashamedly route one approach. Some over-zealous officiating afforded them plenty of opportunities to bombard United’s area.
But, with Simon Moore again commanding when required, Coyne’s men lacked the nous to make them pay.
With illness ruling Jack O’Connell out of contention, Chris Basham was handed an immediate route back into the starting eleven following suspension. Deputising at the back rather than in his preferred midfield role, Basham enjoyed a relatively trouble-free shift and, midway through the opening period, saw a shot deflected just past Jay Leutwiler’s left hand post. But it was Sharp and Lafferty who eventually shattered the hosts’ resistance and secured the victory
A combination of factors denied Coyne the luxury of naming an unchanged team although, given Shrewsbury’s recent poor form, changes were probably inevitable. The return of Ivan Toney, who worked under Wilder at Northampton Town, softed the blow caused by the loss of Ryan McGivern and Adam El-Abd while Gary Deegan, previously of Southend, added some steel to the engine room. Ian Black and Andy Mangan dropped to the bench.
Deegan spent the evening walking a disciplinary tightrope after being cautioned for an early challenge on John Fleck while Joe Riley quickly joined him in the referee’s notebook. But if Shrewsbury’s plan was the outmuscle United, they reckoned without Ebanks-Landell whose header at the far post created United’s first chance. Sharp unleashed a close-range shot as the ball bounced loose only for Abu Ogogo to block it on the line.
Ogogo and George Waring tried to bundle home a Riley corner soon after before Kieron Freeman’s 30th minute shot was scrambled clear at the other end.
Done’s appeals for a 37th minute penalty were waved away with David Webb awarding a free-kick on the edge of the box instead. Basham’s shot, following Mark Duffy’s drag-back, was deflected behind for a corner but it was not until the 48th minute that United made the breakthrough their work deserved. Done prodded the ball into Sharp’s path and the centre-forward duly powered it into the roof of Leutwiler’s net.
Freeman nearly doubled United’s advantage soon after while Lafferty saw a low drive saved after ghosting infield. His willingness to surge forward betrayed the control United had now established. So it was no surprise when Lafferty claimed his first goal for United in the 63rd minute before Sharp pounced again three minutes later.
Shrewsbury Town: Leutwiler, Riley, Sadler, Lancashire, Ogogo, Toney, Brown, J Brown, Grimmer, Sarcevic (Mangan 65), Deegan, Waring (Dodds 65). Not used: Halstead, Black, O’Brien, Leith-Smith, Ebanks-Blake.
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, Basham, Sharp, Done, Wright, Coutts, Freeman (R Brown 89), Ebanks-Landell, Duffy (Whiteman 84), Lafferty. Not used: Hussey, Scougall, Lavery, Ramsdale, Chapman.
Referee: David Webb (Lancashire).