United 0, Burton 1: Happy return for Clough as Brewers blunt sorry Blades
Nigel Clough enjoyed a happy return to Bramall Lane as his Burton Albion side comfortably beat Sheffield United this evening.
Ex-United boss Clough, who guided his former employers to two major cup semi-finals during his time in charge, was sacked after last season's play-off semi-final defeat to Swindon.
But his Bramall Lane return was a sweet one, as Lucas Akins' smart second-half finish ensured the table-topping Brewers stayed on course for promotion to the Championship.
Nigel Adkins, Clough's opposite number, did his best beforehand to paint this as a tussle between two teams, rather than two benches, but the returning boss did receive a generous reception before kick-off. Sportingly, he returned the gesture to all four sides of the ground.
Clough was soon indebted to his goalkeeper, Jon McLaughlin, for denying Matty Done early on and Phil Edwards had to be alert to divert away Billy Sharp's goalbound effort. But, his early intervention apart, McLaughlin was largely a bystander as United, full of industry but lacking any real invention, struggled. It was the United goalkeeper, George Long, who was by far the busier of the two, denying both Mark Duffy and Calum Butcher, but he could do little about Burton's winner.
Damien McCrory, Albion's impressive left-back, released Akins down the left and, afforded perhaps a little too much time and space in the United box, he found the bottom corner with an accomplished finish.
United, who had earlier set out in a 3-5-2 formation with Done at left back, David Edgar in midfield and Chris Basham at centre-half, soon reverted to a more traditional approach with youngsters Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ben Whiteman replacing Flo Cuvelier and Paul Coutts. Alex Baptiste, signed earlier in the day on loan from Middlesbrough, also made his United debut at right-back as United strived to get back in the game. A header wide from Chris Basham was met by ironic cheers from the home fans, but the announcement of six minutes of injury time attracted a somewhat more positive reaction.
A large portion of that early lifeline for United was eaten up by McLaughlin's theatrical save from Neill Collins' downward header, and subsequent treatment, but the home side couldn't find any way through and the full-time boos said it all as their play-off bid continued to falter.