20 up for Billy Sharp as Blades march on ... Peterborough United 0 Sheffield United 1
This game was decided at the death and, Billy Sharp revealed afterwards, designed during the pre-match huddle.
The Sheffield United captain, whose late goal moved Chris Wilder’s team five points clear at the top of League One, admitted players’ conversations before kick-off are usually adrenaline-fuelled nonsense.
But, as the visitors prepared to do battle at London Road, the Churchillian speeches took a back seat.
“We said in the huddle that this wouldn’t be easy,” Sharp explained. “We talk about different things before every game, a lot of it is off the cuff stuff, all the boys contribute.
“It was pretty technical today though. Sometimes I go in there and shout a load of rubbish. Joking aside, we knew we had to be bang at it out there, focused, determined and hard to beat.”
Those words translated into a cold, calculating and thoroughly ruthless performance which, after Peterborough had threatened to take charge during the opening exchanges, saw Grant McCann’s side kept largely at arms’ length. When they did break through, the hosts found it almost impossible to plot a course past Jake Wright and Jack O’Connell who were imperious at the heart of United’s rearguard.
Sharp might have landed the killer blow with only minutes remaining. But United’s victory was built on an implacable defence.
“I was pleased for the lads at the back because I thought they were brilliant out there,” Sharp continued. “They make it much easier for those of us in attack. They work on it all week and, when you are watching the opposition going forward, you just can’t see a way through for them.
“It comes from the top because the gaffer wants us to be solid and resolute. But they put it into action and they’re doing it really, really well.”
Peterborough played their supporting role superbly in a drama stuffed with twists, turns, sub-plots and a breathtaking twist at the end of the script.
The trouble was, from McCann’s perspective, United were more clinical at both ends of the pitch.
After Marcus Maddison had shot wide from a set-piece situation, following Gwion Edwards’ earlier attempt, James Hanson and substitute Jay O’Shea wrestled back the momentum before combining to create the type of opportunity Sharp was never going to miss.
“It was a great time to score, especially in front of our own fans,” he said. “It was a brilliant following from them.
“Wardy (Darren Ward), our goalkeeping coach, mentioned at half-time that we’d missed a few chances but, if we were going to score one, that was the end to do it at.
We had a little bit of a joke about it afterwards. But, seriously, it was nice to see everyone who had come to support us so happy. It felt good to reward them.”
Wilder conceded Peterborough have given United “as much trouble as anyone” this season and their respective game-plans were a mix of self-belief, respect and common-sense.
John Fleck and Marcus Maddison are, statistically speaking, the most creative players in the competition and showcased their talents during a fixture which saw both squads go hell for leather in midfield without ever completely releasing the handbrake.
United, though, have seven players in the ‘assist’ chart’s top 40 and their greater resourcefulness had begun to tell long before Sharp scored his 20th of the campaign.
“Personally, it’s great to get to 20 with 15 games left,” he said. “But the most important thing is the team and that’s what it’s all about, taking three points and moving on to the next one, trying to take care of that.”
Sharp’s strike, following a text-book interchange between Hanson and O’Shea, underlined his importance to the United cause. But, long before he turned home from close range when Hanson headed the substitute’s centre back across the six-yard box, Wright and O’Connell had already made their presence felt at the other end.
O’Connell was like a terrier, snapping at the heels of Peterborough’s attackers whenever they ventured forward and clearing every ball that came his way.
Wright, by contrast, went about his business with almost emotionless efficiency. One first-half moment, when he took time to assess the situation before intercepting Craig Mackail-Smith’s pass, almost certainly prevented Maddison from claiming the opener.
It is no coincidence that, since he returned to the starting 11 two games ago, United have kept back-to-back clean sheets.
LOTS OF LEADERSHIP
With Paul Coutts and Ethan Ebanks-Landell both nursing injuries, Peterborough could have been forgiven for thinking United would be vulnerable. Instead, after handing debuts to both O’Shea and Joe Riley, Wilder finished the fixture nursing a welcome selection headache ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Bristol Rovers.
Although Riley’s introduction came too late to fully analyse his capabilities, O’Shea was dynamic after replacing the unusually subdued Mark Duffy. One area Wilder where Wilder will be loath to tinker, however, is up front after watching Hanson again dovetail well with Sharp.
“He’s done brilliant for my goal at the end,” Sharp continued. “I owe him a few drinks, more than a few, in fact.”
Hanson, who had earlier shot wide and seen another effort blocked, thought he had broken the deadlock midway through the second period but Luke McGee saved well.
“Bash (Chris Basham) and Wrighty are both captains in my eyes,” Sharp said. “They make my job easier. And then there’s Big Hans too. He’s a leader, a real talker, too.”