The sight of Sheffield United beating one of the division’s leading teams will probably, in some sense at least, only add to the frustration levels inside Bramall Lane.
But there could be no doubt that, after goals from Chris Basham and Billy Sharp put Walsall to the sword, Nigel Adkins’ side deserved to claim maximum points following an energetic and, at times, inventive display.
The visitors, who had entered the contest in third and searching for a fourth straight win, enjoyed plenty of possession. But, thanks to the hosts’ desire to press, hustle and harrass, produced little of note. Adkins players, in contrast, carried a much greater threat.
Starting the afternoon 13th in the League One table, inconsistency has been the primary cause of United’s problems this term. However, as Matt Done and Basham reminded when the gave the hosts a first-half lead, they remain capable of producing some brutally effective stuff. The former Rochdale winger’s cross, which Basham converted after it flew across the penalty area, was an absolute peach. Likewise the finish which saw Sharp, scoring for the 18th time since August, tighten his team’s grip on proceedings.
Indeed, with Basham twice going close soon after, United could well have been out of sight by the time referee Lee Swabey blew for half-time.
The midfielder, drifting into attacking positions with far more regularity than has usually been the case of late, was inches away from claiming his second and United’s third soon after the interval with a looping volley.
The sight of Jay McEveley edging forward when the opportunity arose confirmed that, despite the many accusations which can be laid at their door, United are ready to throw caution to the wind between now and the end of the campaign. An obligation Ryan Flynn, speaking during the club’s pre-match media briefing, had acknowledged less than 24 hours earlier.
The return of David Edgar and Alex Baptiste from international duty and injury respectively provided a welcome boost for United as they prepared to face opponents in the thick of an automatic promotion race. Although youngsters Harrison McGahey and Ben Whiteman could count themselves unfortunate to be dropped, the injection of some experience into a back three which has struggled all season to keep clean sheets appeared to be just what the doctor ordered. Nevermind the medicine United’s manager had been prescribed to overcome the throat infection which forced him to miss training as a precautionary measure yesterday.
The opening 15 minutes of this encounter were essentially a game of keep ball as both teams, albeit for vastly different reasons, teased and probed without ever really commiting men forward. Che Adams did his best to break the impasse with a long-range drive which Neil Etheridge watched fly just past the foot of his right hand post while Baptiste boomed a clearance into The Kop when Romaine Sawyers charged towards United’s penalty box. In the main, though, it was pretty tame fayre until a lovely delayed pass from Ryan Flynn, following a patient 29th minute build-up, presented Done with the afternoon’s first real clear cut chance. Etheridge showed fine reactions to parry clear and, on the rebound, Adams blazed over the crossbar. But two goals in the space of six exceptional minutes eventually put United in control. First, in the 31st, Basham headed home at the far post after meeting Done’s centre before Sharp, following a delicate piece of control, blasted the ball into the back of the net.
Basham went close with a first-time effort when another cross, this time from Paul Coutts, was only half scrambled clear early in the second-half.
Harrison McGahey announced his entrance as a substitute for Baptiste with a feint and pass which nearly sent Adams scampering clear. Baptiste did not appear to be injured when he made way for his fellow centre-half but, having only just recovered from a hamstring complaint, was always going to be withdrawn at some stage.
George Long bravely smothered at Tom Bradshaw’s feet during a skirmish in United’s six yard box but United negotiated their way through the rest of the game.
Sheffield United: Long, Basham, Flynn, Coutts, Sharp, Done (Woolford 88), McEveley, Baptiste (McGahey 57), Adams (Calvert-Lewin 90), Edgar, Hammond. Not used: Howard, Reed, Whiteman, Kelly.
Walsall: Etheridge, Demetriou, Taylor (Forde 74), Pennington, Downing, Chambers, Mantom (Lalkovic 74), Bradshaw, Henry, Flanagan (Hiwula 46). Not used: MacGillivray, Preston, Morris, Kinsella.
Referee: Lee Swabey (Devon).