FOR someone who discovered the knack almost by accident, Tony McMahon takes a pretty mean free-kick and the former Middlesbrough full-back delved deep into his repertoire to ensure Sheffield United will spend Christmas on top of League One.
McMahon, scoring twice in a match for the first time since turning professional nearly a decade ago, hailed the three points Danny Wilson’s side gained for this deserved victory over Crawley Town as being potentially among the most important of their season.
Even more significant, however, were those the visitors proved to both themselves and the rest of the division by prevailing on a surface better suited to farming than football.
“Psychologically, I think this result is huge,” McMahon said. “Not just because of where it’s put us in the table but also because it’s shown we can come away from home and battle it out in really tough conditions.
“Everyone raises their game when they play us, we’ve known that all along, but people know now that we aren’t Fancy Dans who aren’t prepared to roll up their sleeves, work hard and fight.
“If anyone wants to take anything from us then they are going to have to give everything to do it.
“We’ve got good character here and ability too.
“I was chuffed to bits to score but first and foremost I’m a defender and so the fact the opposition didn’t gave me just as much pleasure.
“We knew how tough it would be to come here. Not just because of the conditions but because they’re also a damn good team.
“But we came through and that’s why, from a mental perspective, this could turn out to be an important moment. What we’ve got to do know is make sure it does.”
McMahon, who arrived at Bramall Lane on a free transfer last summer, labelled the second of his two spectacular finishes as “probably my best ever goal”.
He wrong-footed Town’s Paul Jones from fully 30 yards, after previously caressing another effort around the wall.
However, the fact McMahon insisted that helping United record the 10th clean sheet of the campaign was a source of equal pleasure provided an insight into the secret of their success.
Despite the terrible playing surface, Wilson’s players, and Kevin McDonald in particular, were assured and inventive in possession.
But the discipline and diligence with which they defended was even more impressive and meant that almost all of Town’s meaningful efforts were from long range.
“I’ve been working on my set-pieces quite a lot in training lately,” McMahon continued. “I practise them all the time and it was nice to see that pay off.
“I remember scoring one against Millwall in 2011. I got hold of the ball and my mate, Andy Taylor, who was also with Middlesbrough at the time, asked me what I thought I was doing.
“I told him ‘I’m going to hit this’ and he probably reckoned I was mad.
“But I did and the ball went in off the underside of the crossbar so I’ve been having a ‘go’ ever since.”
Richie Barker, the Town manager, had admitted beforehand that conditions at Broadfield Stadium left plenty to be desired, and the sight of McDonald walking gingerly across the centre circle ahead of kick-off prompted Wilson to reveal he had considered leaving the Scot, only just recovered from injury, out of United’s team.
McDonald’s performance, which could have been rewarded with a goal during the closing stages, demonstrated the visitors were right not to tweak their selections.
Behind him, the likes of Michael Doyle and Ryan Flynn helped build an almost impenetrable wall in front of a rearguard again superbly marshalled by Neill Collins and Harry Maguire.
On those occasions when Town did threaten, they were either too hasty or careless to exploit the opening.
Barker’s charges showed plenty of endeavour but lacked United’s attention to detail.
“Everyone had a job to do and they stuck to it,” McMahon said. “I thought the rest of the boys, every single one of them, were superb because they all contributed in their own ways.
“There’s a strong spirit here and we work hard for each other ,which is absolutely key.”
Town, still 10th in the rankings, fell behind when McMahon converted following Joe Walsh’s foul on Shaun Miller before another indiscretion by the defender, this time on substitute Joe Ironside, proved equally as costly.
Earlier Dave Kitson, preferred to Chris Porter after recovering from a hamstring complaint, had seen a shot deflected wide after McDonald and Flynn had combined while George Long blocked a Matt Sadler attempt.
Nick Blackman and Town’s Hope Akpan exchanged chances before McMahon pounced again while McDonald failed to produce the shot his mazy run deserved as the final whistle beckoned.
“Now, we move on to the next game,” McMahon, who hopes to face Scunthorpe on Boxing Day, said. “Because this one has been and gone now. The one coming up is always the most important.”