Sheffield United’s already faint hopes of reaching the League One play-offs were finally extinguished at the Ricoh Arena earlier this afternoon.
Goals from Marc-Antoine Fortune and Andy Rose put Coventry City in the driving seat before either team had managed to break sweat before a second-half penalty from Billy Sharp handed the visitors’ a lifeline.
Regardless of results elsewhere, United manager Nigel Adkins conceded beforehand his side had to win this fixture to keep their promotion dream alive. But, when Ruben Lameiras extended City’s advantage during the closing stages, the outcome of fixtures involving Barnsley and Gillingham were rendered irrelevant.
United had travelled south supposedly confident of overhauling the four point gap which, before kick-off, separated them from Barnsley in sixth. The start they made, however, was anything but with City seizing control inside the opening 10 minutes. First, Adam Armstrong’s effort found its way into the back of the net via Fortune’s backside before, moments later, Rose doubled City’s advantage. United, for all their faults earlier this term, have been a much more solid unit in recent weeks. But this was a return to the bad old days of an abysmal Autumn period which helped set the tone for what has been a desperately disappointing campaign.
Sharp, among a small handful of United players who have achieved some consistency, reduced the deficit after the interval after being upended inside the penalty area. Now, it was City’s turn to begin making a dreadful hash of even the simplest of footballing tasks. Reice Charles-Cook’s handling became increasingly erratic. The clearances of his defenders were less than emphatic but United, who later introduced Graham Kelly for his senior debut, could not make the hesitancy count. Indeed, their rearguard was breached again during the closing stages when Lameiras pounced
Adkins’ search for the “consistency of selection” he believes is of crucial importance when it comes to delivering positive results was dealt a blow before kick-off. But the withdrawal of Dean Hammond and Mark Howard – their respective partners were both due to give birth – presented another opportunity for Ben Whiteman while England youth international Aaron Ramsdale was named on the bench. One of seven Steelphalt Academy graduates in Adkins’ matchday squad, this was not an afternoon the youngster will care to remember later in his career despite not being culpable for either of City’s early goals.
Mowbray had taken his players to task following last weekend’s defeat by Doncaster Rovers. The former Celtic manager’s harsh words clearly had an effect as City came bursting out of the blocks to establish a comfortable lead within the first seven minutes. Their first goal – Armstrong’s shot taking a wicked deflection and wrong-footing George Long as a result – was fortuitous. The second was not as Rose’s powerful drive left the United goalkeeper grasping at thin air.
Inevitably, this course of events rocked United’s confidence. George Thomas tested Long’s handling skills from just outside the penalty area after gliding into position as all around him were desperately trying to find theirs. The match continued in much the same vein, the odd darting run from Billy Sharp and Che Adams apart, until United finally established some rhythm around the half hour mark. Adams saw a volley turned wide by Charles-Cook before Long’s counterpart denied Ryan Flynn with a smart low save.
Although Charles-Cook batted away an attempt by Adams soon after the re-start, City continued to look sharper both on and off the ball. A fact demonstrated when, after Adams had turned it back towards the six yard box from the by-line, Jack Stephens beat Chris Basham to the loose ball. When they did work themselves into position, careless positioning also led to a number of needless offsides.
A careless tackle, by Aaron Martin, was responsible for handing United a route back into the game just before the hour mark. The defender tripped Sharp who duly converted the resulting spot-kick for his 21st of the season. Matt Done, Adams and Paul Coutts all saw pot shots blocked during a skirmish in front of Charles-Cook as United searched for an equaliser.
It did not arrive but a third for City did when substitute Lameiras beat Long from point blank range.
Coventry City: Charles-Cook, Vincelot, Fleck, Armstrong, Cole, Stephens, Rose (Phillips 70), Martin (Jones 65), Thomas, Fortune (Lameiras 77), Hunt. Not used: Addai, Gadzhev, Tudgay, Harries.
Sheffield United: Long, Basham, Flynn (Woolford 66), Coutts, Sharp, Done (Kelly 89), McEveley, Baptiste, Adams, Edgar, Whiteman (Reed 86). Not used: Ramsdale, Sammon, McGahey, Kelly, Brooks.
Referee: Andy Davies (Hampshire),