Sheffield United continued their rise up the League One table and Ethan Ebanks-Landell his inexorable march towards cult-hero status at Bramall Lane.
The centre-half, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, laid the foundation for this emphatic win over Port Vale by scoring twice and helping to keep a third successive home clean sheet as Chris Wilder’s team stretched its unbeaten run in the competition to eight games.
Although the margin of victory could have been even greater - referee Mark Heywood and his assistants ruled-out four United efforts for offside - further strikes from Mark Duffy and Stefan Scougall ensured the scoreline reflected the hosts’ dominance of a contest which, even visiting coach Andy Smith conceded, saw Vale get “100 per cent done.”
“The lads are calling me goal machine and I’ll take that but it’s a bonus to score,” Ebanks-Landell said. “My job is to keep the ball out of our net and I’m more happy with doing that.”
Ebanks-Landell, as modest off the pitch as he is omnipotent on it, seems genuinely bemused as to why he has won over hearts and minds in this corner of South Yorkshire so quickly since arriving from Molineux. His performance against Vale explained why. The 23-year-old might not be the most technically gifted defender in the division but plays with an honesty and commitment few others can match. Two qualities which, he admitted afterwards, are prerequisites for anyone trying to secure a place in Wilder’s plans.
“I don’t know why the fans have taken to me,” Ebanks-Landell continued.
“I’m just playing my game, giving everything and that’s all I know how to do. The gaffer demands we give everything and, although he’s not done it yet, even if you come on as a sub and don’t do that, I imagine he’s got it in him to drag you straight off again.”
United seized control with Jack O’Connell and Kieron Freeman going close before Ebanks-Landell scored for the second time in as many outings.
He pounced again on the stroke of half-time when Vale failed to clear a Paul Coutts centre before Duffy turned home after Billy Sharp’s shot was blocked on the line. Vale, who had earlier seen Anthony Grant denied by a superb Freeman tackle, had posed more of a threat during the opening exchanges of the second period.
But a collectors’ item completed the rout; Scougall heading home fellow substitute Chris Hussey’s cross despite standing only five feet six inches tall.
“We’re creating chances and that’s a real positive,” Ebanks-Landell said. “We have to keep it going.”
The clamour for United to try and broker a deal for Ebanks-Landell during the January transfer window will only grow after his display against Bruno Ribeiro’s side. Quite why Wolves have deemed him surplus to requirements becomes more baffling with every passing week. Nevertheless, despite making his presence felt in both boxes, Ebanks-Landell was arguably not United’s most accomplished player as the brushed aside opponents who had made the journey from Staffordshire fourth in the table.
Matt Done was a constant menace while Duffy caused Vale all manner of problems before his influence waned. But John Fleck’s midfield masterclass simply oozed quality.
The former Scotland under-21 international made a slow start to his United career but is now showcasing the talents which once prompted Steven Whittaker, his old colleague at Rangers, to describe him as “frightening.” Fleck was unfortunate to see one attempt disallowed before forcing a superb save from Jak Alnwick.
can get even better
The attacking prowess United showed will dominate the post-match debate but their work at the other end of the pitch deserves a mention too. It is now over six hours since they conceded a goal at home in the league and Jake Wright, O’Connell and Freeman all made important contributions to ensure that run remained intact.
Freeman dashed 40 yards to thwart Grant after going close himself while O’Connell made a vital interception when Vale, trailing 2-0 at the time, searched in vain for a lifeline. Wright, though, best sums-up the wisdom of Wilder’s decision to base his recruitment strategy on substance rather than style. Previously of Oxford, the centre-half is not a glamorous name. But he is brutally effective. Wright has played six times since leaving the Kassam Stadium and is yet to taste defeat.
United climb to fifth - three points behind second-placed Bradford City - with a game in hand. No team had won this fixture by more than the odd goal since August 2008 but they cruised home against opponents who, with Ribeiro, Smith and Michael Brown patrolling the technical area, were not lacking insider knowledge.
The three men amassed 214 appearances for United during their own playing careers. Crucially, though, United still enjoy plenty of room for improvement.
Fleck, despite his best efforts here, can score more goals while Caolan Lavery and Leon Clarke are yet to achieve full fitness following summer moves.