THIS League One season has been characterised by inconsistency and unexpected results.
So Sheffield United, having entered last night’s match at Gigg Lane as strongly-fancied favourites, were delighted to buck the trend with a deserved victory over lowly Bury.
Jonathan Forte edged Danny Wilson’s side, now fifth in the table, ahead with a superb finish during the closing stages of opening period.
With Dominic Poleon set to bolster the former Northern Ireland international’s attacking options, Forte could not have chosen a better moment to score his first goal since returning to South Yorkshire on loan from Southampton.
But it was Jamie Murphy, showing exactly why Wilson was so keen to lure him away from Motherwell during the recent transfer window, who put United firmly in the driving seat with another sumptuous strike after the interval.
On paper, this game appeared an away banker.
Scratch beneath the statistics, though, and it was anything but.
Bury might have started the contest 17 places and 24 points behind the visitors in the rankings.
However, with Wilson’s predecessor, Kevin Blackwell, at the helm, a solid sequence of results has given them a fighting chance of survival.
And, given Bury’s knack of frustrating supposedly superior opponents, United crossed the Pennines hoping to avoid joining the likes of Doncaster Rovers, MK Dons and Brentford on their list of scalps.
Wilson’s charges achieved that objective courtesy of another purposeful display peppered with sharp passing which means they enter Saturday’s meeting with Colchester hoping to complete a hat-trick of wins.
Blackwell, who led United for 30 months before departing in August 2010, enjoys an enviable reputation for constructing gutsy, tenacious teams.
Speaking before making the short journey to Greater Manchester, Wilson urged his players to approach their latest challenge with self-assurance rather than apprehension.
Those words had the desired effect when Forte, spearheading the attack in an unchanged United squad, came within a whisker of giving them an eighth minute lead.
Ryan Flynn, having seen his fellow Scot Murphy threaten Bury’s rearguard with his pace and technique, blazed a trail down the opposite flank but Trevor Carson showed good reactions when the on-loan striker connected from close range.
With Poleon poised to arrive from Leeds later this week and Chris Porter expected to leave Bramall Lane, albeit on a temporary basis, within the next 24 hours, Forte continued to pose a threat .
Stephane Zubar, the Bury centre-half, needed all his strength to out-muscle the United centre-forward when they contested another Flynn cross before Forte out-stripped his marker following a speculative up field pass but failed to control.
Blackwell described some of the players he inherited as “garbage” soon after being appointed five months ago.
Since then, however, Bury have climbed off the foot of the table having won six and drawn 13 of their previous 27 outings.
With several of the division’s leading teams, including those from stadium:mk and Griffin Park, all dropping points against Blackwell’s charges of late, United knew their Championship credentials would be put to the test at a ground where their South Yorkshire neighbours were recently put to the sword.
Steven Schumacher blazed a free-kick over the crossbar during the early exchanges which also saw Murphy test Bury’s resolve with several darting runs at the other end of the pitch.
Despite United continuing to pose the greater threat, Nicky Ajose tested George Long’s reactions with a fierce drive midway through the first period while Harry Maguire had to fling himself in front of a similar effort from Zubar to prevent it from troubling United’s teenage goalkeeper.
As the interval approached, Bury began to establish a foothold in the contest until Forte seized upon Michael Doyle’s excellent 38th minute pass and dispatched a shot to match beyond the helpless Carson.
Bury, producing the work ethic and resolve which are the hallmarks of a Blackwell squad, wasted a glorious opportunity to equalise soon after the interval when Zubar inexplicably failed to hit the target after meeting Schumacher’s in swinging free-kick. Murphy made him pay when he found himself in acres of space, ghosted beyond two markers and swept home from an acute angle when Flynn’s 60th-minute corner was only partially cleared.
Murphy went close again soon after but on this occasion sent the ball past the far post, with Bury substitute David Healy fluffing his lines moments later.
BURY: Carson 6, Skarz 6, Eastham 6, Schumacher 6 (Worrall 63), Bishop 6 (Healy 82), Ajose 6, Regan 6, Zubar 7, Thompson 6, Ebanks-Landell 6, Soares 6. Not used: Jones, Carrington, Belford, Carole.
UNITED: Long 6, Higginbotham 7, Maguire 7, Flynn 6, Doyle 7, McDonald 6, Kitson 7 (Ironside 89), Collins 7, Forte 7 (Robson 74), Murphy 8, McMahon 7. Not used: Westlake, Hill, McFadzean, Coyne, De Girolamo.
Heroes:Jonathan Forte and Jamie Murphy both impressed in attack for Sheffield United and deserved to write their names on the score sheet. Both finishes were superb and left Bury goalkeeper Trevor Carson with no chance whatsoever.
Viewpoint: What a difference two wins make. Just a couple of weeks ago, Sheffield United looked bereft of confidence. Now it positively oozes from every pore. Importantly, they are also starting matches in much more positive fashion now too.