Match report: Bristol City 0 Sheffield United 1

Aden Flint diverts the ball into his own net.
Aden Flint diverts the ball into his own net.
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It says much about the upheaval these clubs have experienced in recent years that only two of the 28 players who featured when they last met four seasons ago remain at Bramall Lane or Ashton Gate.

But, from Sheffield United’s perspective at least, there was something reassuringly certain about this performance.

United's fans celebrate their first away victory of the season.

United's fans celebrate their first away victory of the season.

Against opponents previously unbeaten in five games, Nigel Clough’s side prioritised substance over style before demonstrating levels of composure, concentration and attention to detail they have previously lacked.

Littered with set-pieces and settled by a scrappy own goal, Saturday’s match could hardly be described as a classic encounter.

Nevertheless, securing a rare cleansheet and first league win on the road since March ensured it was a memorable occasion for the visitors.

“That’s the perfect away display from us,” Tony McMahon, whose cross forced Bristol City defender Aden Flint to turn the ball into his own net, said. “Given where we are in the table, at least.

“We showed character and committment. There was a real togetherness from us out there - qualities we’ll need plenty of to get ourselves out of trouble and to where we want to be.

“It wasn’t the greatest of games perhaps. But we aren’t here to be pretty. We are here for points and we got them all out there.”

As McMahon admitted, a victory which lifts United to 21st place and above their opponents in the rankings was built on pragmatism rather than panache.

Nigel Clough, appointed as David Weir’s permanent successor just over a month ago, selected a starting 11 designed to smother City’s attacking threat and was rewarded by the sight Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, responsible for scoring nearly half of their goals this season, being kept at arm’s length throughout.

The decisive moment came with 12 minutes remaining when McMahon, recruited from Middlesbrough 16 months ago, combined with Conor Coady before firing a low centre across the penalty area which Flint, having failed to adjust his footing, duly bundled home.

“The gaffer has been banging on at me to do that,” McMahon said. “He’s been on my case, telling me to fire it in when I get to the byline instead of always trying to pick someone out.

“I actually told him before the game that I thought I was due something like that today. Speaking as a defender, that’s not a ball I would have liked to have dealt with.

“When you’re facing your own goal and a cross comes in like that it’s really difficult to get yourself into the right position so he (Clough) was exactly right.”

“Hopefully we can kick on now,” McMahon added. “It feels great to get that monkey about not winning away from home in ages off our back. Psycholigically, at least, that’s really important.

“The one thing we really need, though, is stability. I’ve not been here even for two seasons and already I’ve played under four different managers.

“The gaffer now is the right man for the job. No question about it.

“He’s been in the business a long, long time and is a real football man. The biggest thing he’s done is just take us back to basics, get us to focus on trying to do the simple things right.”

Like United, now enduring their third consecutive season at this level, City are fast discovering there is no such thing as an easy ticket out of League One.

Relegated from the Championship in April, they failed to win any of their first 11 outings before a hat-trick from Jay Emmanuel Thomas propelled them to victory over Carlisle last month.

The former Arsenal protégé, signed as part of the swap deal which took Paul Anderson to Ipswich Town, has been a rare success story for Sean O’Driscoll’s side this term and entered Saturday’s contest having scored seven goals in his previous five outings.

He was once labelled a “potentially great player” by Arsène Wenger, so little wonder that Clough identified Emmanuel-Thomas as the most obvious danger to his team’s chances before making the long journey south.

But with United keeping the 22-year-old at bay, it was captain Sam Baldock who spurned City’s most glaring opportunity when he elected to shoot rather than square for midfielder Scott Wagstaff and saw his shot saved by George Long.

O’Driscoll insisted Karleigh Osborne, whose loan from Millwall expires this week, should not have seen a 90th-minute effort ruled out for a foul on United’s goalkeeper.

Asked whether there was anything Flint could do to prevent himself from scrambling McMahon’s pass past Elliott Parish, City’s manager replied: “Actually, there was a lot Aden could do about it. He’ll be disappointed with himself that he didn’t clear that because he cleared everything else that came his way out there.

“He should have shown a little bit more composure. You don’t have to whack the ball into the stands. Even if you just nudge it away it can do the job.”

“The result was a real kick in the teeth for us,” O’Driscoll continued. “We had lots of possession but didn’t just try to lump the ball forward.

“Credit to them, though, because their defensive line was superb. There were no gaps out there.”

Although United’s squad are far from the finished article - question marks remain about their potency in front of goal - Clough’s commonsense approach has transformed them into a much more cohesive unit.

With Harry Maguire, United’s sole survivor of 2011’s meeting between these two teams, faultless alongside fellow centre-half Neill Collins, Emmanuel-Thomas and Nicky Shorey traded free-kicks before Long excelled himself to thwart Baldock.

Coady and Lyle Taylor, preferred to Shaun Miller in United’s attack, tried their luck from long range after punching holes in City’s rearguard but it was McMahon’s persistence which eventually engineered the breakthrough.

“From a defensive point of view, it doesn’t get any better than getting the right result and not conceding,” he said. “Everything City got out there they had to earn. We didn’t give them anything and that was really pleasing.

“Now what we’ve got to do is go out there and do it all over again.”