Whether or not trailing the automatic promotion places by 12 points constitutes, as Nigel Adkins would say, being in the fight come January is open to debate.
But the manner in which Sheffield United won this pivotal League One contest, against a Bradford City team also harbouring aspirations of reaching the Championship, certainly does represent an ominious statement of intent.
Four successive victories suggests that, after five months of false starts and experimentation, Adkins has finally discovered the formula which brings the best out of his side. United, now eighth in the table, were decisive, resolute and, one notable exception apart, ruthless when required.
“I was really pleased because there was a resilience and a grit about the players,” Adkins said. “But there was a threat too. It’s not a case of either or. You can do both.”
Billy Sharp’s 10th goal of the season - and his third in as many games - laid the platform for the result which moved United to within a point of the play-off positions.
The centre-forward has built his reputation on being a predator, converting chances from close-range rather than creating them from nothing. But his latest effort since returning to Bramall Lane from Leeds fell comfortably into the latter category. City goalkeeper Ben Williams will have been disappointed to have been beaten from 25 yards out but the angled drive Sharp unleashed after peeling away from his marker was perfectly placed. Likewise the cross from Paul Coutts which enabled Conor Sammon, who has earlier been guilty of a dreadful miss, redeem himself during the second-half. David Edgar, on target for the first time in United colours, put the game beyond doubt soon after although Gary Liddle reduced the deficit late on.
Phil Parkinson, the City manager, felt the contest hinged on a 25 minute period after the break when United netted twice and produced arguably their best football of Adkins’ reign.
“We were more than in the game but we creaked a little bit then,” he acknowledged.
Forget tactical innovations, Christmas tree formations and playing between the lines. This was proper derby fayre between two Yorkshire rivals determined to tackle, rattle tempers and go about their business with tempo and pace. Adkins and Parkinson got in on the act too, exchanging words across the technical area following a similarly frank exchange between the United bench and Tony McMahon. The action was seldom pretty and frequently untidy. But it was absolutely compelling.
Adkins, who promised to construct an open, expansive and attack-minded team after being appointed during the close season, has taken an entirely different tact in recent weeks. Whereas United were previously prepared to gamble in pursuit of a win, they now defend for their lives and build from a solid base. It is a pragmatic but mightily effective approach. George Long’s hopes of recording a fourth straight clean sheet were dashed when Liddle converted McMahon’s corner but, until the closing stages, City were mostly kept at arms length.
“It was a shame to concede,” Adkins said. “But there was some excellent game management.”
The past 12 months have certainly been eventful at Bramall Lane with a Capital One Cup semi-final, failed play-off campaign and the now obligatory change of manager all featuring. The squad Adkins inherited after replacing Nigel Clough in June is expected to undergo yet another makeover when the transfer window reopens next month. Nevertheless, the former Scunthorpe and Southampton chief acknowledged before yesterday’s game that consistent selections hold the key to success during the second-half of the campaign. Adkins underlined that message by naming an unchanged starting 11 against opponents who, after accumulating more points on the road this term than 22 of the division’s 24 teams, adopted exactly the same policy.
Parkinson has spent the past four years fashioning a squad to suit his methods. Unashamedly physical, City also possess players capable of combining industry with invention. Kyel Reid, one of three former United players in their ranks, tried his best to prise apart their rearguard with some mazy runs during the early skirmishes. But it was Sharp, turning his marker and threading a thunderous low shot past Williams’ outstretched palm and into the bottom corner of the net, who struck the first meaningful blow.
United did not have everything their own way with Matt Done forced to leave the pitch after being injured as he hunted down a long ball forward into the City penalty area. His departure changed the dynamic of United’s attack with Sammon entering the fray. George Long produced a superb save to deny Lee Evans just before the interval, turning away the on-loan midfielder’s free-kick following a foul on Billy Clarke.
Sammon was guilty of a horrendous miss when he glanced wide from three yards out after meeting Sharp’s cross. City bombarded United’s penalty area with a series of dangerous balls when the action resumed. Reid dragged wide from the edge of the box but Sammon’s intervention slowed City’s momentum before Edgar halted it completely. Liddle flicked home at the near post after meeting McMahon’s corner but it was too little, too late.
Sheffield United: Long, Brayford, Basham, Coutts, Sharp (Campbell-Ryce 90), Done (Sammon 33), Collins, Woolford (Flynn 89), McEveley, Edgar, Hammond. Not used: Howard, Flynn, Baxter, Reed, K Wallace.
Bradford City: Williams, Darby, Evans (Knott 69), Liddle, Hanson, B Clarke (Cole 76), Leigh (Meredith 69), Burke, Reid, McArdle, McMahon. Not used: N Clarke, Marshall, Bowery, Cracknell.
Referee: Mark Haywood (West Yorkshire).