SHEFFIELD United took another important step along the road to redemption when they secured their third straight win of the new League One season in remarkable fashion last night.
Walsall, a team transformed under the tutelage of former Sheffield Wednesday defender Dean Smith, dominated for long spells and seemed destined to return home clutching all three points until a dramatic fight back demonstrated United possess guts as well as guile.
Having seized control of the contest almost straight from kick-off, it was a wonder Walsall had to wait until just after the interval to breach a United rearguard which appeared wracked with nerves and doubt.
But Smith’s charges reckoned without the fighting spirit manager Danny Wilson has instilled in the home ranks and United, inspired by substitute Lee Williamson, completed their best start to a new campaign since the eighties.
Kevan Hurst opened the scoring by deceiving Steve Simonsen with an angled drive before Will Grigg quickly doubled the visitors’ lead following a corner.
Matthew Lowton offered United hope when he applied the finishing touches to some splendid work by substitute Lee Williamson.
The full-back’s intervention provoked a fiery response from Wilson’s men who also saw a Neill Collins header cleared off the line.
But with Williamson’s equaliser capping a inspired individual cameo, United sealed a memorable comeback when Richard Cresswell converted a 74th minute penalty.
Wilson, who took charge earlier this year following United’s relegation from the Championship, has made no secret of his desire to usher in a new era of creativity at Bramall Lane.
Results, the former Northern Ireland international insists, can be achieved by fostering freedom of expression whatever the division.
Even in the sporting maelstrom that is League One.
Already, though, a familiar pattern is emerging which suggests United must persevere in order to make progress towards this particular aim.
The recent Carling Cup success at Hartlepool brought welcome respite from the physical battering Wilson’s players have been warned to expect given their glamorous reputations.
But triumphs over Oldham Athletic and Brentford have been achieved the hard way with United forced to overcome stoic resistance before their superior skills levels eventually told. Walsall, whose fortunes have improved dramatically since Smith’s appointment, proved much more polished opposition.
They arrived in South Yorkshire boasting a win and a draw from two league outings so far this term and with captain Andy Butler in their starting eleven after the red card he received at Victoria Park on Saturday was rescinded just hours before kick-off.
United, with new signing Kevin McDonald retaining his place at Michael Doyle’s expense in midfield, were unchanged but struggled to find their rhythm as Walsall, driven forward by Richard Taundry and Anton Peterlin, made a bright start.
The American, a summer acquisition from Plymouth Argyle, had Simonsen scampering back towards his line after barely three minutes with a long-range shot which, much to United’s relief, flew just over the crossbar.
Claude Gnakpa was also making his presence felt in the final third and a surging run created a wonderful chance for Jon Macken but the Walsall marksman miscued before drilling another effort inches wide soon after.
McDonald’s ability to spot a pass and Jordan Slew’s pace provided a modicum of encouragement for United and the two combined to good effect midway through the opening period but the youngster’s attempt was blocked. Macken continued to threaten and drew a remarkable save from Simonsen with a rasping drive.
It was not until the 39th minute that Walsall’s Jimmy Walker was called into action when Nathaniel Mendez-Laing unleashed a 25 yard thunderbolt.
Again, McDonald was the architect.
Walsall, though, deservedly took the lead when Hurst lashed the ball into the back of Simonsen’s net before Grigg pounced when the ball fell at his feet inside the six yard box.
Gnakpa came within a whisker of putting the match completely beyond United’s reach when Simonsen fumbled another
Lowton turned the tide back in United’s favour and, but for Darryl Westlake’s awareness, Collins would have snatched an equaliser.
Instead that responsibility fell to Williamson who left Walker rooted to the spot and Smith with his head in his hands.
He was positively distraught when Cresswell claimed his third of the season from the spot after Mat Sadler had felled Williamson.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Simonsen, Lowton, Mendez-Laing (Williamson 58), Jean-Francois, Montgomery, Slew, Collins, Cresswell, Maguire, McDonald (Doyle 51), Quinn. Not used: Bogdanovic, Tonne, Long.
WALSALL: Walker, Westlake, Sadler, Butler, Lancashire, Grigg, Macken, Hurst (Jarvis 83), Taundry, Gnakpa (Nicholls 70), Peterlin. Not used: Smith, Beevers, Grof.
REFEREE: A Haines
GOALS: Hurst (47), Grigg (51), Lowton (60), Williamson (68), Cresswell (74)
CAUTIONS: Lowton (23), Peterlin (58), Jean-Francois (90)
RED CARDS: None