“RUSSELL Slade,” according to a legendary piece of graffiti at the Matchroom Stadium, “Would have saved the Titanic if he’d been around in 1912.”
The Leyton Orient manager has made a career out of achieving the improbable but beating Sheffield United, despite circumstances conspiring against Danny Wilson and his side, proved a step too far.
The visitors, who climbed to third in the League One table courtesy of Nick Blackman’s audacious finish, lost influential centre-half Neill Collins to injury before kick-off and goalkeeper Mark Howard soon after.
However, with his teenage deputy George Long producing a splendid save to deny Slade’s team an equaliser, United ignored the disruption to preserve their unbeaten start to the new campaign.
“George has done absolutely fantastic out there,” Matt Hill, the United defender, said. “He’s worked hard in training and waited for his chance.
“The stop he pulled off was as good as a goal.
“There wasn’t any panic from us when George came on and that’s because we’ve got faith and confidence in him.
“He performed well and he spoke well so all credit to him.”
With early reports suggesting the thigh muscle Howard damaged while making a clearance could take around a month to heal, Wilson conceded United will inevitably be forced back into the loan market.
“We’ll have to bring someone in because we’ve only got one keeper now,” Hill acknowledged. “It can be difficult to bring youngsters through, especially in that position, because of the pressure involved.
“It’s the gaffer’s decision but George has stepped into the lions’ den and come out flying.
“He’s done enough to be able to go to the manager and say ‘I want that place’.”
Although Blackman and Long seized the limelight, others played substantial supporting roles.
Marcus Williams and Tony McMahon struck the right balance between creativity and conservatism at full-back while Hill, deputising for Collins at the heart of United’s rearguard, was commanding alongside the equally authoritative Harry Maguire.
Together they combined to ensure Long, making only the sixth senior appearance of his career, enjoyed a high degree of protection until Kevin Lisbie met Lee Cook’s centre at the far post.
Not that United, who successfully repelled Orient’s aerial bombardment during the closing stages, were fortunate to escape with all three points as Dave Kitson and McMahon both went close before Blackman pounced.
“My strength is to defend,” Hill said. “And hopefully I’ve shown I’m good at it. First and foremost I’m here to stop goals and crosses. People might look at me and think that, only being five foot eight and a bit inches tall, I’m too small to play that role.
“But I like to think that you can make an impression in
there by showing some cleverness and being able to read a game.
“I’ve got a pretty decent spring so there are no worries about doing it in my mind.”
Slade, who led both Grimsby Town and Yeovil into the play-offs before nearly repeating the trick in East London two seasons ago, has constructed an effective squad on a shoestring budget.
Despite his inexperience, Long is highly regarded by coaching staff behind the scenes at Bramall Lane, with Slade revealing afterwards the youngster had been a potential target for Orient earlier this year.
A tactical switch stifled United’s attacking threat during the early exchanges - McMahon shooting over the crossbar either side of Howard’s departure - but when Blackman thundered home from range, following a neat interchange involving the former Middlesbrough stalwart and Ryan Flynn, Orient
failed to truly test Long until Lisbie and Cook combined.
Substitute Richard Cresswell tested Ryan All
sop’s handling after Long’s dramatic save with Michael Doyle also a whisker away from extending United‘s advantage.
“We’ve shown we’ve got a strong squad,” Hill said. “We work hard for each other because you can’t rest on your laurels as someone is always ready to come in and take your place.
“There was quite a bit of chopping and changing going on but we stuck together and came through.”
n United manager Wilson has revealed Collins could return to training this week despite being admitted to hospital after contracting an infection in his foot.
But Wilson admitted it was impossible to say exactly how long John Cofie will be absent.
The striker, who also missed the League One fixture, felt pain in his groin before boarding the coach to London.
“Neill has been in hospital and he’s been on an IV drip,” Wilson said. “But we’re hopeful he should be okay sooner rather than later.”
Cofie, on loan from Manchester United, was excused from journeying south after revealing his discomfort to coaching staff on Friday.
“John couldn’t be involved and so there was no point in asking him to come down when he could be staying at home and receiving treatment,” Wilson said. “Fingers crossed, the rest will help and then we’ll see how he is.”