DANNY Wilson’s fear that Swindon would provide United’s toughest test of the season so far proved unfounded as League One’s only unbeaten record remained intact.
The visitors, despite forging few genuine opportunities against Paolo Di Canio’s side, climbed to the summit of the table for the first time following another industrious performance. United were far from fluent. But they possess a stubborn, durable streak which has now heralded eight clean sheets in the competition since August.
Indeed, had Harry Maguire and Neill Collins not seen attempts scuffed off the line during the closing stages, United’s efforts would have received even greater reward.
Moments of genuine quality were in short supply but there were full-bloodied tackles aplenty.
And while Swindon, who saw both Matt Ritchie and Gary Roberts thwarted by the woodwork, created more chances, it was United who trooped off the field with something to celebrate.
Polar opposite personalities, Di Canio and Wilson nevertheless share similar footballing beliefs.
Both have fashioned squads capable of seducing the purists but United once again showed the steely side of their character.
Swindon, meanwhile, can be as unpredictable as Di Canio’s mood.
Capable of beating top-flight opposition one month and then losing to Macclesfield the next, they showed flashes of the potential which has prompted some to tip them as promotion contenders.
Di Canio’s reign in Wiltshire has been punctuated by outrageous displays of emotion and high-profile off-the-pitch spats.
Despite his accomplishments with the likes of Lazio, Juventus and Milan, critics argued that Di Canio’s character would prevent him making the transition from player to coach.
However, after guiding Swindon out of League Two, claims the 44-year-old’s appointment was destined to end in disaster now appear even more dubious than his political beliefs.
Even so, Di Canio continues to walk the tightrope between method and madness. Swindon’s preparations for this match had been overshadowed by his decision to accuse their star names of lacking desire during a shock FA Cup defeat by Steve King’s charges three days earlier.
Lambasted as “pathetic” and “unprofessional” by Di Canio during a typically animated post-match address, the hosts’ produced a gutsy response.
But it was not enough to inflict a rare defeat on the new league leaders although Tranmere Rovers could reclaim top spot with a positive result against Hartlepool tonight.
Wilson had refused to publicly acknowledge his rival’s existence before making the long journey south.
Over a decade has passed since Di Canio’s shove on referee Paul Alcock saw the former Northern Ireland international’s stewardship of Sheffield Wednesday descend into chaos but time, in this instance, has not completely healed old wounds.
“He was there young, he was worried, he didn’t have a strong character to handle the situation and me,” Di Canio told his local newspaper ahead of kick-off. “Obviously he has changed… he became a mature manager, a mature guy.”
The absurdity of Di Canio lecturing the vastly experienced Wilson on the nuances of the managerial art will not have been lost on others, including compatriot Fabio Capello, who have also tired of his temperament.
Di Canio spent the evening gesticulating wildly on the touchline.
But after, it must be said, warmly embracing Wilson on the touchline ahead of kick-off.
Only the width of the crossbar prevented Swindon, with brothers Nathan and Louis Thompson in their starting eleven, from taking a first minute lead when Ritchie’s looping effort sent George Long scampering back towards his line.
Long continued to be the busier of the two goalkeepers with James Collins and Simon Ferry both connecting with crosses into the box.
Swindon’s captain’s drew a fine save from the United teenager after finding himself in space on the edge of the area before Nick Blackman tested Wes Fotheringham from range with three minutes of an otherwise incident free first half remaining.
Long punched clear from Collins following a Swindon counter-attack during the opening skirmishes of the second before Roberts, regarded by Di Canio as one of the Football League’s “most talented players,” saw a shot deflected onto the youngster’s near post.
United’s response came in the shape of a Tony McMahon free-kick which narrowly evaded Maguire who had ghosted behind his marker while Kevin McDonald warmed Fotheringham’s gloves after Collins and his fellow defender had gone close.
SWINDON TOWN: Foderingham 6, McEveley 6, Devera 6, Ferry 7, Collins 7 (Storey 75), Ritchie 6, Roberts 7 (DeVita 66), N Thompson 6, A Williams 6, L Thompson 6 (Archibald-Henville 87), Ward 7. Not used: Bedwell, Benson, Rooney, Oakley.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Long 7, Maguire 7, Hill 7, Flynn 6, Doyle 7, Porter 6, Blackman 6 (Cresswell 70), McDonald 6, Collins 7, McMahon 7, M Williams 6. Not used: Willis, Westlake, Miller, McAllister, Cofie, Kennedy.
Cautions: N Thompson (36), McMahon (83)
Red cards: None