THE Football League’s only unbeaten record remained intact last night as Sheffield United laboured to victory over Walsall.
Nick Blackman’s penalty ensured a nervous contest at Bramall Lane ended in the home side’s favour but Danny Wilson’s team still departed the pitch with grumblings of discontent ringing in their ears after failing to satisfy the South Yorkshire public’s appetite for a glut of goals.
When Dean Holden was sent off with less than a quarter of an hour gone, it should have been the cue for United to set about posting the type of score which would have sent shockwaves reverberating throughout the rest of the competition.
Instead, they endured arguably the most awkward experience of their season so far.
United, having started so brightly, became increasingly careless as the contest progressed and were indebted to George Long for preventing what was an ultimately a fruitful evening ending in acute embarrassment.
This fixture brought together two teams who pride themselves on trying to pass their way towards success.
Wilson, the United manager, had warned that Walsall possess the youthful exuberance and technique to trouble supposedly superior opponents.
His assessment of their qualities proved unerringly accurate as, despite their numerical disadvantage, they worked like Trojans to frustrate both the home players and crowd.
It also saw Long and Karl Darlow afforded an opportunity to stake their respective claims for the title of League One’s most promising goalkeeper. Long claimed the prize and the spoils by making another addition to his growing collection of superb saves when Will Grigg came within a whisker of snatching an equaliser following Holden’s costly foul.
Darryl Westlake, who began his career at the Banks’s Stadium, again featured in the hosts’ squad while Andy Taylor, a high-profile victim of Wilson’s close season cull, started for the visitors.
Long, whose performances since stepping into the breach have persuaded Wilson to re-think United’s transfer policy, used the occasion to remind why he is so highly thought of by coaching staff, colleagues and supporters alike.
The 18-year-old, making only the 10th senior appearance of his career, enjoyed a relatively sedate evening after Holden’s departure had skewed the odds decisively in United’s favour.
Walsall, despite their numerical disadvantage, were no pushovers though.
Indeed, only a courageous challenge from Long stopped Grigg from restoring parity soon after Blackman had claimed his seventh goal in United colours since arriving from Blackburn Rovers earlier this summer.
The England youth international surpassed himself again during the closing stages of the opening period when Grigg, a bundle of energy in Walsall’s attack, escaped the attentions of United’s back four.
Darlow, signed on loan from Nottingham Forest, is also attracting admiring glances from higher up the footballing food chain.
The 21-year-old was twice called into action during the opening skirmishes to prevent Blackman and then Dave Kitson, having recovered from the virus which had threatened his involvement, from prodding home.
United, naming the same 11 which had prevailed at Preston North End three days earlier, have adopted a more gritty approach during their second campaign under Wilson’s tutelage.
But with Walsall emphasising technique rather than tenacity, they returned to type with Michael Doyle and Kevin McDonald working the angles while Blackman and Kitson gorged themselves on a diet of short through balls.
When Holden was dismissed, United’s grip on the contest was tightened.
Walsall arrived in South Yorkshire with question marks surrounding their durability having surrendered a two-goal advantage against Crewe Alexandra last weekend.
Ryan Flynn, however, quickly discovered these doubts did not extend to their stomach for a fight when he was flattened by Richard Taundry as early as the ninth minute.
Four minutes later and United exacted revenge when Kitson intercepted Jamie Paterson’s back pass and Holden hauled him to the ground.
Blackman, who duly made no mistake from the spot, had another appeal turned down before McDonald’s miscalculation allowed Grigg to test Long’s bravery and resolve.
A deflected long-range effort from Tony McMahon sent Darlow back-tracking towards his line moments later.
But, as the interval beckoned, United’s work became increasingly careless.
In the 38th minute, Long thwarted Grigg from close range after Florent Cuvelier’s cross had flashed low across the six yard box.
Marcus Williams tried to inject some tempo with a series of darting runs. However, it was McMahon who went closest to making his presence felt by unleashing a shot 25-yard shot following a patient build-up with looped just over Darlow’s crossbar.
Cuvelier, the architect of most of Walsall’s attacking moves, provided a reminder that the match was still delicately poised when, in the 53rd minute, he curled a shot just beyond Long’s far post.
Paul Downing blocked Flynn’s close-range strike while United substitute Shaun Miller nearly made an instant impact after replacing Blackman.
His chip failed the find the back of the net as Wilson’s men continued to over-elaborate rather than go for the jugular.
UNITED: Long 8, Maguire 6, Hill 6, Flynn 6, Doyle 7, Blackman 6 (Miller 68), McDonald 6, Kitson 7 (Porter 80), McAllister 6 (Cofie 55, 6), McMahon 6, Williams 6. Not used: Westlake, Collins, Cresswell, Willis.
WALSALL: Darlow 6, Taundry 6, Butler 6, Holden 4, Featherstone 6, Chambers 7, Cuvelier 6, Grigg 7 (Bowerman 77), Paterson 7 (Hemmings 65), Baxendale 5 (Downing 15, 6), Taylor 6. Not used: Grof, Brandy, Purkiss, Jones.
Booking: Kitson (76).
Sending-off: Holden (13).