Sheffield United have grown accustomed to opponents parking the bus, applying the handbrake and, in many cases, throwing away the ignition key.
A visit to Coventry, in desperate need of points following six straight League One defeats, should have marked a welcome departure from the grind of being forced to break down packed defences. Instead it turned out to be one of the most testing evenings of the campaign so far as they were forced to rely on Billy Sharp’s late goal to deliver the result which lifts them to second in the table with 24 matches left.
Manager Chris Wilder will not have been impressed by many aspects of his team’s performance. But he must have been delighted by their resolve.
City, who had earlier seen Daniel Agyei cancel-out Sharp’s opener, posed a much sterner test of United’s promotion credentials than expected. But if winning ugly is the hallmark of a successful team, then Wilder’s charges passed with flying colours.
Given City’s brittle confidence, the first goal was always going to have a major bearing on the game. Sharp ensured United claimed it with a clinical finish.
The centre-forward, who has scored 14 times since being appointed captain in August, picked his spot before dispatching a perfectly placed drive across Reice Charles-Cook’s body and into the far corner. United have never lost when Sharp has scored this season and, after Agyei had threatened to cause a minor upset, it was the 30-year-old who instead fired them to their first away win over City since 2009.
While United strive to reach the Championship, City are engaged in a bitter civil war for the heart and soul of the club. SISU, the hedgefund which has presided over the decline of this once proud footballing institution, were once again the subject of protests which, when one home supporter vaulted the advertising hoardings, spilled over on to the pitch. His actions might not have been advisable but, given SISU’s chaotic stewardship, they were understandable. Less than three decades after beating Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup final at Wembley and 15 years since being waving goodbye to the Premier League, City now find themselves sliding towards oblivion. Run badly, completely rudderless and, unless there is a major change of direction behind the scenes, almost certain to be relegated soon.
Fortunately for Mark Venus, their beleagured manager, City’s cobbled together squad is still up for a fight.
With United lacking their usual finesse, Agyei dragged them back on level terms following Sharp’s opener before the contest descended into a war of attrition.
Caolan Lavery, who twice hit the woodwork, and Marvin Sordell traded chances as both sides searched for a second goal.
But, just as United appeared to have wrestled back the momentum, the second pitch invasion of the night brought a halt to proceedings and provoked a series of vocal exchanges between rival fans. Fortunately, Sharp kept his cool by powering home with four minutes remaining.
United had been warned beforehand this match would prove a much tougher assignment than the rankings suggested. But not even Wilder, who drilled his players on the importance of being switched on at all times, could have predicted exactly why.
Although City made a decent fist of things during the opening exchanges - Agyei making his presence felt in attack - the biggest challenge was establishing clear lines of communication against the noise created by the protests. Lafferty and Sharp, who combined to edge United into the 24th minute lead, had no problem reading each others intentions as they sliced a hole in City’s defence. Although the hosts refused to crumble, they lacked United’s incisiveness and punch. Fleck, facing his former club for the first time since leaving Warwickshire during the close season, was inches away from doubling their lead when he attempted to scoop a long-range effort over Charles-Cook’s head while Matt Done was inches from connecting with a Kieron Freeman cross.
City came within a whisker of equalising moments before half-time. When Andre Wright, on loan from West Bromwich Albion, seized possession following Chris McCann’s corner, Simon Moore must have feared the worst. But, rather than blazing the ball past United’s goalkeeper, the youngster thrashed it over the crossbar and into one of the four sparsely populated stands.
United were not so fortunate when, six minutes after the re-start, Agyei’s shot looped over Moore’s head after taking a wicked deflection off Paul Coutts. Sordell shot inches wide as United, after taking the decision to overload their attacking options, were caught short at the back. Either side of the former Colchester striker’s effort, United substitute Lavery twice went close with his second attempt rebounding to safety off the post but, with four minutes remaining, Sharp made no mistake from close-range.
City: Charles-Cook, Willis, Turnbull, Bigirimana, Rose, Agyei (Thomas 68), McCann, Page, Sordell, Wright (Lameiras 73), Kelly-Evans. Not used: Addai, Jones, Reid, Gadzhev, Tudgay.
United: Moore, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham, Sharp, Done (Lavery 63), Coutts (Clarke 75), Ebanks-Landell, Freeman, Duffy (Whiteman 82), Lafferty. Not used: Ramsdale, Hussey, Lavery, Wright, Brown.
referee: David Webb