TEENAGE goalkeeper George Long was thrust into the spotlight last night as Sheffield United manager Danny Wilson lost patience with the out-of-form Steve Simonsen.
Long was a member of the side that reached last season’s FA Youth Cup final and made only his second league start for the Blades.
The 17-year-old, ironically, was untested for the majority of the game against Milton Keynes Dons – although the victory proved far from easy.
Simonsen had paid the price for costly blunders in recent games against Leyton Orient and Sheffield Wednesday.
Wilson will still be looking to sign another experienced goalkeeper on loan but Long has taken an important step up the career ladder by getting the nod last night.
His only previous appearance in the league had come against Swansea City on the final day of last season. Striker Richard Cresswell also returned to the side as a replacement for Chris Porter while striker Billy Clarke made his home debut following two solid displays in away games.
If Long was feeling a tad nervous before the game, his mood would not have been helped by a floodlight failure which left players from both sides warming up in the dark.
Normal service was resumed 25 minutes before the kick-off to the relief of everyone inside Bramall Lane.
The Dons, who started the game only a point behind the Blades in sixth spot, could have gone ahead in the 19th minute but Nick Montgomery blocked a goalbound shot from Stephen Gleeson.
It was a scare but Cresswell soon wiped away the jitters by putting the Blades ahead with his fourth goal of the season.
The goal was the product of a flowing move with Cresswell slotting the ball past goalkeeper David Martin after an incisive pass from Clarke.
Once ahead, the Blades took command of the first half and rarely looked in danger of conceding an equaliser. They had far more of the ball than the Dons although few shooting opportunities.
Goalkeeper Martin saved Matt Phillips’s drive and blocked an overhead kick by Clarke – but that was about it. It was even quieter for Long at the opposite end of the field.
By half-time, his involvement had been limited to the occasional clearance and a couple of strolls around the penalty box. It would have been difficult to dream up a more genteel introduction to the demands of League One football.
Long was even given extra handling practice at half-time, presumably to make sure he was awake.
The chances of a similar situation in the second half were extremely slim. And Long soon got a lesson in the harsh reality of first-team football as the Dons equalised with their first shot after the interval. To be fair, it would probably have beaten many an international goalkeeper.
It flew from the boot of Stephen Gleeson with real ferocity and sailed beyond his reach into the far corner of goal.
Dons defender Mark Beevers then delivered a crunching challenge on Cresswell.
From that moment on, the player currently on loan from Sheffield Wednesday was given a far rougher ride. Cresswell, meanwhile, limped off the field.
The Blades shook of the setback and regained the lead within 15 minutes. This time, the goal could have been made in Blackpool as both the creator, Clarke, and the finisher Phillips are currently on loan with the Blades from the seaside club.
Clarke, who tormented defenders all night, truly did the spadework – his final ball was a goal served on a plate for Phillips in the six-yard box.
The Irishman nearly put his own name on the teamsheet before being substituted but was foiled at the far post by Chadwick.
Dons manager Karl Robinson made a triple substitution – swapping strikers Dean Bowditch and Jabo Ibehre plus midfielder Shaun Williams for Charlie MacDonald, Daniel Powell and Angelo Balanta.
The switch led to a first serious save of the night for Blades goalkeeper Long as Balanta fired low from distance.
The Dons’ hopes of getting back in the game took a blow seven minutes from the end when defender Adam Smith was sent off for a second bookable offence after fouling Ryan Flynn.
However, with the Blades intent on defending far too deep, the Dons were never out of the game until the final whistle.
There were sighs of relief all around Bramall Lane at the end. And one will no doubt have come from Long.
Sheffield United: Long; Lowton, Maguire, Collins, Williams; Phillips, McDonald (Doyle 82), Montgomery, Quinn; Cresswell (Evans 63), Clarke (Flynn 76). Unused substitutes: Simonsen, Jean-Francois.
MK Dons: Martin; Smith, Flanagan, Beevers, Lewington; Potter; Chadwick, Gleeson,Williams (Balanta 70), Bowditch (Powell 70); Ibehre (MacDonald 70). Unused substitutes: Chicksen, McNamee.
Referee: G Salisbury (Lancashire).
Results and tables: Page 22.