Sheffield United produced a dramatic comeback to claim their 17th victory of the League One season at Port Vale last night.
Micky Adams’ side seemed destined to condemn the visitors to a rare defeat when Louis Dodds opened the scoring during the early exchanges of the second-half.
But late strikes from Jamie Murphy and substitute Chris Porter ensured it was United, now unbeaten at this stadium since December 1983, who secured maximum points and provide further evidence that, despite being far from the finished article, they are capable of mounting a serious challenge for promotion next term.
By Nigel Clough’s own admission, United must improve their returns in front of goal in order to ensure the potential which exists within his squad does not go unfulfilled.
However, Clough could have no complaints about their finishing during the closing stages of a contest which turned on its head in six eventful minutes.
Vale were on the verge of posting a fifth consecutive win on home soil when Dodds denied United their 20th clean sheet under the former England international’s stewardship.
But Murphy and Porter had other ideas and produced two fine strikes in the 83rd and 89th minutes respectively.
“I thought, to come back in the manner we did, showed our spirit,” Murphy, who turned provider after converting John Brayford’s centre, said. “We don’t like losing no matter what is at stake.
“We want to win every single time we go out on the field and that’s a good mentality to have. Hopefully it will serve us well in the future.”
United, playing their 22nd game in 12 weeks, made five changes to the eleven which had drawn with Tranmere Rovers four days earlier with Jose Baxter and Michael Doyle among those recalled. But it was Murphy and Porter who made the most decisive contributions.
“It’s important to keep our momentum going,” Murphy said. “The gaffer has underlined the importance of doing that and it’s something we’ve all bought into too.”
Adams, whose five month spell in charge of United ended in relegation from the Championship three years ago, has enjoyed plenty of success in this corner of Staffordshire.
With a proposed new contract his reward for guiding Vale to promotion last term before subsequently establishing them as a force to be reckoned with in English football’s third tier, Clough also revealed his respect for Adams’ achievements before travelling to the Potteries.
Using his programme notes to describe the visitors as a club “which is still close to my heart,” Adams, a boyhood United supporter, nevertheless insisted “that wouldn’t mean a thing when we meet them out there on the pitch”.
And so it proved, only the foot of a post prevented Dodds from firing Vale into a fourth minute lead with Harry Maguire forced to scramble clear as Ben Williamson attempted to bundle home the rebound.
United, though, are a much more formidable proposition than the team which won only once in 13 outings at the start of the present campaign and, having survived that early onslaught, posed some questions of their own.
Conor Coady, who returns to Liverpool after his loan deal finishes at the end of the campaign, was close to finding Baxter on the edge of Sam Johnson’s six yard box after ghosting past two markers while Stefan Scougall was also a threat.
Brayford, another loanee whose future at Bramall Lane has yet to be resolved, blazed wildly over the crossbar after combining with Doyle.
Scougall, whose poise and turn of pace meant he was a constant menace to Vale’s defence, was scythed down by Chris Robertson after embarking on another drive forward towards the end of the opening period.
United were 20th in the table after beating 12th placed Vale at home in October.
Six months later and having won 21 of their 39 fixtures under Clough’s tutelage, thoughts have inevitably turned towards fashioning a squad capable of reaching the Championship next term after that stalemate at Prenton Park left trailing the play-off positions by 10 points with only three matches of the season remaining.
Equipping United with a sharper cutting edge is likely to be Clough’s most pressing concern during the forthcoming transfer window with his team entering last night’s match possessing, statistically at least, the division’s most shot shy attack away from home.
Despite Baxter’s ability to perform as a ‘false nine,’ their need for a prolific centre-forward was illustrated by the fact that Johnson did not have a save of note to make until Ryan Flynn unleashed a powerful drive from the edge of the area soon after the interval.
United enjoyed plenty of possession and, some brief scares apart, had kept Vale at arms length before conceding for only the sixth time in 13 league outings.
Adam Yates, the former Morecambe defender, clipped the ball into space and when a deflection appeared to wrong-foot Matt Hill, Dodds powered a fierce shot into the roof of Howard’s net.
Billy Knott also went close from long range before Murphy pounced and Porter pressed his claims to fill that vacancy.
“Ports is a great lad,” Murphy said. “And you know that if you put the ball in the right area for him then he’s capable of putting it away.”