Terry Kennedy retained his place in Sheffield United’s starting 11 while Jamie Murphy returned following illness.
Kennedy, a graduate of the League One club’s youth system, partnered Jay McEveley at centre-half while Marc McNulty spearheaded their attack against third-placed Preston North End. The visitors included former United players Paul Gallagher and Kyel Reid in their matchday squad. Geoff Eltringham took charge of the fixture after Patrick Miller was forced to withdraw.
There was a change of walk-on music at Bramall Lane as Sheffield United paid tribute to Joe Cocker.
But would Nigel Clough’s side get by with a little help from their friends?
Even beforehand, against a Preston North End team which has grown in stature as the season has progressed, they knew they would need to pull together in order to achieve a positive result.
Jay McEveley and Ryan Flynn did exactly that as they combined to prevent Jermaine Beckford, passed fit following a hamstring complaint, and Kevin Davies prising United’s rearguard apart during the opening exchanges.
Tom Clarke, the North End captain, used more agricultural methods to stop Stefan Scougall doing likewise at the opposite end of the pitch but Geoff Eltringham, taking charge of this crucial League One fixture after Patrick Miller was forced to withdraw, decided he has stayed on the right side of the law. Just.
With 12 points and three places separating these two clubs in the table ahead of kick-off, the onus was on United, ranked sixth, to make the running. Hence Clough’s decision to select an attack-minded line-up.
Nevertheless, mindful of North End’s prowess, they could not over commit.
Jamie Murphy, drifting in to space behind Marc McNulty, sent Thorsten Stuckmann scampering across his line with a shot from range in the ninth minute but the ball flew wide. Clarke headed a Neil Kilkenny set-piece just past Mark Howard’s far post soon after but was judged to be offside.
Next it was Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s turn to shine, winning a 12th minute corner following a driving run. North End only half cleared which allowed Michael Doyle to try his luck from 30 yards but Stuckmann remained untroubled.
Not so when Terry Kennedy ventured forward to contest a spiralling high ball but the United centre-half, despite bravely flinging himself into the goalkeeper’s path, could not bundle home.
McNulty mistimed another attempt after combining well with Stefan Scougall on the edge of North End’s penalty area. United had shaded the early exchanges but Simon Grayson’s men had looked very6 dangerous on the break.
And so it very nearly proved whehn Beckford’s delightful first touch presented Paul Gallagher with an opening which Ryan Flynn did well to quickly close.
Jose Baxter delivered a lovely 34th minute free-kick, inswinging towards Stuckmann, following yet another foul but McNulty could not produce the vital touch.
McNulty did connect six minutes before the interval after Doyle and Scougall produced a superb exchgange to edge United, who moments later saw Baxter drill just wide with Stuckmann beaten, fully 35 yards up the pitch.
In between, Kilkenny became the first player to be cautioned for a poor challenge on Doyle. Given the fearsome nature of North End’s approach, it was a wonder Eltringham had kept his card in his pocket for so long.
-- Neither manager elected to make a change for the start of the second half but North End’s strong arm approach continued with a foul on McNulty enabling Bob Harris to test Stuckmann’s handling with a 48th minute free-kick.
The goalkeeper, with Scougall bearing down, initially appeared to have fumbled but eventually held firm.
Scougall was outmuscled soon after as he tried to ghost in front of Clarke to meet Campbell-Ryce’s centre.
Kennedy, again but, in the 54th minute, United deservedly took the lead.
Doyle saw a shot charged down and McNULTY, seemingly aware that Stuckmann had edged off his line, showed great awareness to hook the ball over his shoulder and home.
Beckford and Clarke joined Kilkenny in the referee’s notebook as North End wobbled. But Gallagher shou,ld have drawn them level three minutes after the re-start only to blaze wastefully over the crossbar after escaping his marker following a scramble.
Paul Huntington was booked before Grayson made a double change in the 67th minuyte with Beckford, whose temper had become increasingly frayed, withdrawn alongside John Welsh. Former United midfielder Kyel Reid and John Brownhill entered the fray.
United responded by doubling their lead three minutes later.
Murphy powered forward leaving three markers trailing in his wake and, just as he looked like being crowded out, slipped the ball tpo CAMPBELL-RYCE who drilled home through Stuckmann’s legs as the goalkeeper tried to narrow the angle.
Doyle became the first United player to see yellow as North End applied some huge pressure of their own.
United were having to work incredibly hard to keep them at arms length with Kennedy and McEveley both putting their bodies on the line as the dynamic of the game changed.
Grayson brought on Sylvan Ebanks-Blake to try and crack Clough’s men with Chris Humphrey making way.
Campbell-Ryce departed soon after when United introduced Craig Alcock. Scougall followed soon after for James Wallace with his namesake Kieran also being tasked with keeping North End at bay when Baxter was substituted.
Brownhill made it 2-1 in the 90th minute with a free-kick which Howard got a palm to but could not keep out.
Sheffield United: Howard, Harris, Flynn, Doyle, Murphy, Scougall, Baxter, McNulty, McEveley, Campbell-Ryce, Kennedy. Substitutes: Alcock, J Wallace, Higdon, Reed, Turner, Adams, k Wallace.
Preston North End: Stuckmann, Wiseman, Clarke, Humphrey, Kilkenny, Davies, Beckford, Gallagher, Buchanan, Welsh, Huntington. Substitutes: Jones, Wright, Woods, Reid, Brownhill, Browne, Ebanks-Blake.
Referee: G Eltringham (County Durham),