Oxford United 2, Sheffield United 3: Sharp is spot-on as Blades go eight clear at the top
Chris Wilder has always warned the path to promotion is littered with potholes and pitfalls.
It is a route the Sheffield United manager knows well having led last night’s opponents out of the Conference before lifting the League Two title with Northampton Town eleven months ago.
His players, following this emphatic victory over an enthusiastic but ultimately out-manoeuvred Oxford, seem to know it inside out too.
Chey Dunkley briefly threatened an upset when he edged the hosts in front before two goals from Billy Sharp, which bookended a Kieron Freeman effort, saw United produce the type of response which will send a shiver down the spines of the chasing pack.
Toni Martinez reduced the deficit late on but, deep into added time, it was nothing more than a consolation.
Wilder, who was appointed by United during the close season, has overseen a revolution at Bramall Lane since accepting the challenge of leading them back into the Championship following a six year absence.
So perhaps it was fitting that this unashamedly blue collar club should showcase the values which have seen it open up an eight point gap at the top of the League One table in a city built on academia. Wilder’s exuberant celebrations following the final whistle - ushering every member of United starting eleven and bench over the small army of supporters which had made the long journey south - confirmed he knows this is a potentially significant result.
The visitors, showing no sign of nerves or stagefright, simply carved one of the competition’s sternest defences apart.
Although there was more than a touch of misfortune about Oxford’s opener - Dunkley glancing a header beyond Simon Moore while Jake Wright, blood pouring from his nose, was receiving treatment off the pitch - United’s desire to try and score the perfect goal initially proved much more costly than bad luck.
Time and time again, until Sharp rectified the situation, the visitors seemed intent on walking rather than simply powering the ball into the back of Oxford’s net. Opportunities went begging and good field position was wasted while Wilder’s forwards became increasingly irate.
Sharp, however, is not prone to taking five touches when one will do. So, when the ball fell at his feet just before the hour, United’s captain instinctively smashed it home. It was Sharp’s 25th of the season and 13th in only 15 games.
The 26th quickly followed from the penalty spot but, although Sharp’s goals are proving the driving force behind his side’s seemingly relentless pursuit of a top two finish, there is much more to Wilder’s team than that.
Chris Basham was a commanding presence while Paul Coutts, whose delightful pass sent substitute Caolan Lavery scampering through before Freeman’s intervention, boasts an exquisite touch.
When Mark Duffy was forced to withdraw through injury, concerns about the state of the playing surface prompted United to name Basham in midfield rather than the more cultured Jay O’Shea or Samir Carruthers. It was a decision which, but for Freeman’s perplexing decision to cut the ball back rather than shoot, should have spawned a fourth minute goal after Basham had powered his way through.
Sharp, who had surged forward to support his team mate, looked stunned when Freeman elected to pass instead of testing Simon Eastwood. Likewise James Hanson who, declared fit following a minor ankle problem, saw his first time attempt sail out of the stadium from just inside the box.
Suspicions that Oxford do not enjoy the physical side of the game were confirmed when first Coutts and then Hanson both went close during a sustained period of pressure again instigated by Basham.
But the Checkatrade Trophy finalists are, as Conor McAleny and Rob Hall both demonstrated, incisive on the break. McAleny, on loan from Everton, seemed odds on to open the scoring after finding himself in space on the edge of the six yard box but, like Hanson before him, was made to look foolish by the badly rutted pitch.
Dunkley, though, made no mistake when he turned home midway through the opening period while Wright, who was later deemed unable to continue, was being attended to on the touchline.
A rare error from Basham, bravely tidied-up by Simon Moore, nearly gifted Oxford a second during the closing stages of the first-half.
Predictably it was Sharp who, in the 55th minute, dragged United back on level terms. The goal was a typical poacher’s effort - the division’s leading scorer so far this term reacting first to John Fleck’s corner - and most definitely deserved.
United benefited from their own slice of good fortune when, with 17 minutes remaining, Freeman rolled the ball across the penalty area only to see his cross sneak inside the far post.
The wing-back was involved again when he was upended following a surging run and Sharp duly converted from the spot. Substitute Martinez provided Oxford with a glimmer of hope in added time but United were not to be denied.
Oxford United: Eastwood, Lundstram, Nelson, Maguire, McAleny, Hemmings (Martinez 79), Edwards, Hall (Sercombe 79), Ledson (Rothwell 63), Johnson, Dunkley. Not used: Stevens, Skarz, Ruffels, Raglan.
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham, Sharp, Wright (Carruthers 25), Coutts, Hanson (Lavery 53), Freeman, Ebanks-Landell, Lafferty. Not used: Long, McNulty, Done, Wilson, O’Shea.
Referee: Paul Tierney (Lancashire).