THIS was no Valentine’s Day Massacre but Sheffield United issued a chilling statement of intent to the rest of their League One rivals with last night’s narrow but deserved win at the Galpharm Stadium.
Danny Wilson’s side had made the short journey to West Yorkshire looking to beat one of the division’s leading six teams for only the second time this season and assert their claims for automatic promotion in the process.
They achieved both of those objectives in gritty, gutsy style against a Huddersfield Town team which, despite losing further ground on their rivals, demonstrated enough to suggest it will contest a top two place at the end of the season.
Neill Collins, who excelled in tandem with Harry Maguire, scored the only goal of the evening when he headed home at the far post after his fellow centre-half had helped on Ryan Flynn’s corner.
But Steve Simonsen, much-maligned following a series of high-profile errors at the start of the campaign, emerged as one of the architects of this success by producing two fine blocks to deny Danny Ward and Oscar Gobern as their opponents looked to move through the gears.
With Maguire and Richard Cresswell both enjoying excellent opportunities to score, United could well have put the result beyond Town’s reach long before Simonsen’s reactions prevented Sean Morrison’s shot deflecting in off Collins at the death. United, resisting the temptation to include on-loan striker Will Hoskins in their starting 11, made only one change to the starting team which had beaten Wycombe Wanderers three days earlier.
Flynn, the player to profit from Lee Williamson’s injured calf muscle,
Town, by contrast, made four with goalkeeper Alex Smithies’ return denying Ian Bennett an appearance against his former club.
Smithies’ opposite number Simonsen was forced to whisk Jack Hunt’s centre off the head of Jordan Rhodes as Lee Clark’s men looked to take the initiative but it was United who landed the first telling blow when Collins nodded home from close range in the sixth minute.
The Scottish centre-half, being watched from the directors’ box by compatriot David Weir, admitted earlier this month that his failure to get off the mark since arriving at Bramall Lane in January last year had become a source of considerable frustration.
With Wilson acknowledging beforehand that United would “have to score” to stand a chance of taking something from the contest, Collins could not have picked a better time to open his account.
Had Ched Evans, usually so deadly in the opposition penalty area, not taken a fresh air shot 10 minutes later then Wilson’s men would surely have doubled their advantage.
With Clark’s touchline mannerisms threatening to become as agitated as Town’s defending, Ward attempted to settle his manager’s nerves with a rasping free-kick but Simonsen saved well.
Nevertheless, it was a reminder of the firepower the hosts’ possessed within their ranks and Simonsen was forced to produce an even better block to deny Gobern soon after.
However, with Kevin McDonald and Michael Doyle spraying passes to either flank, United continued to prove adept at picking holes in Town’s rearguard.
Matthew Lowton saw his appeal for a 28th minute penalty waved away by referee Kevin Friend after colliding with his marker while Stephen Quinn drilled wide following another poor clearance.
Despite his earlier mistake, Evans continued to find space in front of Town’s back four and it was his industry which created the chance for Cresswell, who later claimed he had been impeded only yards from goal, to head wide.
Cresswell returned the favour with a delightful 37th minute faint to send Evans scampering through as United launched another raid forward.
But when the former Leeds and Stoke City marksman attempted to apply the finishing touches to a move his ingenuity had been responsible for starting, Smithies spread himself well at the near post.
Rhodes struck the woodwork and Gobern inexplicably headed wide from a corner as Town grew in stature during the closing stages of the opening period but Evans redressed the balance immediately after by flashing a set-piece wide after Flynn had been hauled back on the edge of the area.
But, in the 64th minute, only Doyle’s goal line intervention prevented Sean Morrison from hauling Town level while Rhodes should have netted seconds later only to shoot straight at Simonsen.
Maguire and McDonald both tried their luck as the final whistle beckoned but Town were unable to engineer an equaliser.
TERRIERS: Smithies 7, Hunt 7, Naysmith 7, McCombe 6, Morrison 7, Roberts 6 (Cadamarteri 64) 6, Gobern 6 (Woods 46) 6, Robinson 6, Ward 7, Rhodes 7, Lee 7 (Novak 74) 6. Not used: Bennett, Higginbotham.
BLADES: Simonsen 8, Lowton 7, Maguire 8, Collins 7, Jean-Francois 7, Quinn 7, Doyle 7, McDonald 8, Flynn 7, Cresswell 7 (Porter 82), Evans 8 (Hoskins 90). Not used: Montgomery, Long, Williams.
CAUTIONS: McDonald (40), Simonsen (57), Lee (58), Naysmith (64)
RED CARDS: None