Four days after describing them as “dark horses” in the race for Championship play-off qualification, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder saw his team clear a significant hurdle.
Goals either side of the interval from Richard Stearman and the impressive John Lundstram moved them to seventh in the table and within a point of sixth-placed Bristol City.
But the manner of United’s victory, against a Queens Park Rangers side which had narrowly triumphed when the two clubs met at Loftus Road earlier this term, served to remind why Wilder has warned there could be plenty of late plot twists as the story of the season draws to a close.
Luke Freeman’s effort turned-out to be a consolation for the visitors but completely changed their opponents’ demeanour and guaranteed an anxious ending.
“I’m delighted with the result and delighted that we had to find a way,” Wilder said. “We deserved to win, there’s no doubt about that in my mind. But you have to work out a way to come through and we did.”
Ian Holloway, the Rangers manager, only had to read Wilder’s notes in the matchday programme to discover how United planned to approach the fixture.
Ordered to “go full tilt” and “fight” every time they set foot on a football pitch, the 50-year-old attempted to hammer home his point by dashing across the technical area and recycling the ball every time it went out of play. The message, interspersed with orders barked towards the referee, was clear: Purpose, character and conviction are vitally important attributes at this stage of the campaign.
It clearly resonated with United’s players who created numerous opportunities before Stearman pounced after Leon Clarke had helped on a Mark Duffy corner.
But even though they dominated in terms of territory and possession, there was a sense the hosts were never quite in complete control. Not even Holloway could argue United, who had also seen Billy Sharp and Lee Evans go close, were undeserving of their lead. But several scrambled clearances served to underline the slender nature of their lead. Hence, Wilder’s manic celebrations when Lundstram doubled their advantage at the beginning of the second period.
Unfortunately for both theirs and the vast majority of the crowd’s sanity, Freeman’s finish put the outcome back in doubt and gnawed away at United nerves.
Suddenly, where they had previously attacked with impunity, Wilder’s men retreated back towards their box. Passes which had earlier been executed perfectly began to go astray. It reflected both Rangers’ own resilience and the size of the prize potentially at stake.
“I thought we played well but let them back into the game,” said Wilder. “But I told the lads don’t be embarrassed about that when you look at their quality of their manager and their group.”
“I’m sure Chris felt gutted when we won at our place,” Hollway countered. “Well, I feel gutted that we didn’t take a point out there.”
With John Fleck serving the final game of a two match suspension, Lundstram partnered Lee Evans in midfield as Wilder looked to give United a creative as well as combative edge.
The former Everton youngster, a summer signing from Oxford, was a save away from immediately vindicating his selection after forcing Alex Smithies into action.
The goalkeeper, who moments earlier had flapped at an Enda Stevens cross before George Baldock fired over, was relieved to see Clarke’s effort hacked off the line on the rebound.
Alex Baptiste, who made 11 appearances on loan for United during the Nigel Adkins era, was in the right place at the right time again when Billy Sharp burst through only to be dispossessed as he prepared to shoot.
United’s captain enjoyed another sight of goal as Wilder’s team grew in stature as the half progressed but, after robbing Nedum Onuoha, sliced wastefully wide. However, it proved only a temporary reprieve for Rangers who fell behind in the 27th minute when Stearman, scoring for the second time in United colours, converted at the far post.
Given the direction of travel, it was a surprising that it took 23 minutes for another goal to come. Rangers were still trying to fathom how Jamal Blackman had prevented first Freeman and then Conor Washington from restoring parity when Sharp darted forward and, after beating the offside trap, provided the cross which an unmarked Lundstram slid home.
Less than a quarter-of-an-hour later, Freeman’s low drive into the bottom corner handed Rangers a lifeline they nearly grasped when Matt Smith failed to direct a seemingly routine header past Blackman during the closing stages.
“We played a very good team,” Holloway said. “Their manager deserves a lot of credit, their manager deserves a lot of credit and their fans deserve a lot of credit. When you think what it used to be like here, that’s what happens when you have people who care.”
Sheffield United: Blackman, Baldock, Stevens, O’Connell, Basham, Lundstram (Lafferty 84), Clarke, Sharp (Donaldson 74), Stearman, Evans, Duffy (Leonard 74). Not used: Wright, Eastwood, Evans, Brooks.
Queens Park Rangers: Smithies, Bidwell, Onuoha, Lynch, Freeman, Washington (Osayi-Samuel 81), Scowen, Smith, Baptiste (Smith 66), Luongo (Eze 87), Wszolek. Not used: Furlong, Ingram, Perch, Chair.
Referee: Oliver Langford (West Midlands).
Star Man: John Lundstram.