SHEFFIELD UNITED are probably at the point when they deserve to be tagged champions-elect but they will not face a sterner footballing test than that provided by Charlton Athletic.
A 2-1 victory over the Addicks stretched United’s advantage over second-placed Bolton Wanderers to nine points with eight games remaining, and 10 points over third-placed Fleetwood Town.
But Chris Wilder’s side were given a torrid opening and could have been 3-0 down before Jack O’Connell equalised on 14 minutes.
That Charlton only had Ricky Holmes’s third-minute free-kick to show for a spirited opening – which saw Tony Watt’s overhead kick hit the crossbar – was harsh on Karl Robinson’s team.
Yet, it is the measure of this Blades team – overhauled in the summer by Wilder – that they weathered the storm, and grabbed all three points courtesy of Daniel Lafferty’s 48th-minute goal.
Centre-back O’Connell believes the Blades were punished for another slow start, but were tough enough to deal with the pressure of being league leaders.
“It was very tough, we started slowly, which we have done a few times lately,” said O’Connell.
“But we recovered well and got the win, which was important.
“We put ourselves under pressure, so only have ourselves to blame. We need to cut out those slow starts.
“No game is going to be easy between now and the end of the season, everyone is fighting for different reasons.
“We have to deal with that pressure (of being top) and, to be fair, I think the lads have. We are just keeping our feet on the ground and working hard.
“We enjoy training every day, coming out to play. We have had a few away wins, but it’s no good doing that if you can’t back it up at home.
“You can’t freeze, or crumble under pressure, you have to deal with that pressure and the gaffer has installed confidence in training to just go out and enjoy it.
“As long as we work hard, I don’t see why we can’t win games.
You can’t freeze, or crumble under pressure, you have to deal with that pressure and the gaffer has installed confidence in training to just go out and enjoy it.Sheffield United defender, Jack O’Connell.
“Credit to Charlton, they are a good team and pass it really well, they posed us some problems.
“We had to hang on and dig deep to get that win.
“Sheffield United – the fans here – expect to win every game, and we have to deal with that pressure. I think we have.”
United probably need another four wins from their remaining eight games to secure promotion to the Championship.
But they were given a shock by Charlton, whose slick, attacking football surprised most of the 23,308 inside Bramall Lane.
Holmes beat Simon Moore with a free-kick to put the visitors 1-0 up, and it could have been worse as Watt was denied by the bar and Ezri Konsa barged through only to be thwarted by the goalkeeper.
United needed a swift response and, from their first meaningful attack, Mark Duffy’s cross was met by a glancing headed equaliser from O’Connell.
There was some discussion on who was awarded the goal, but the defender claimed it for his fifth of the season since arriving from Brentford.
“Duffy has tried to take it off me,” smiled O’Connell. “It was definitely my final touch.”
Moore had to be alert to deny Watt, after the forward cut inside his marker, as Jake Forster-Caskey proved impressive in Charlton’s diamond midfield.
The Blades started to regain some of their swagger as the game progressed, John Fleck appealing unsuccessfully for a penalty, before sliding in with James Hanson but neither getting a touch on Billy Sharp’s teasing low cross.
After some harsh words at half-time from Wilder, it was the Blades who made a swift start to the second half and were in front inside three minutes.
The overlapping Kieron Freeman picked out opposite wing-back Lafferty, but his header was blocked by goalkeeper Declan Rudd.
Former Burnley defender Lafferty, however, was first to react, blasting the loose ball home in front of a relieved Kop.
Charlton pushed for an equaliser, Konsa should have scored but miscued his shot in front of goal.
United were able to prove dangerous on the counter-attack, Chris Basham heading over, and Sharp – for once not on the scoresheet – fired into the side-netting.
“Even when we were behind, I always thought we would come back,” said 22-year-old O’Connell, who previously had loan spells at Rotherham United and York City. “We have a good bunch of players.
“We need to keep more clean sheets, us defenders thrive on clean sheets.
“We haven’t kept clean sheets in the last few games, so need to get back to doing that.”
The 90-point mark is a good target for automatic promotion, not that Wilder will discuss numbers in public.
“We can’t talk about what we need,” said Wilder. “We just can’t. Punters, you guys, will talk about what we need. We just want to keep the hammer down.
“To get out of the division, and maybe what we haven’t had in the past, we need to fancy it every single game.”
Sheffield United: Moore, O’Connell, Ebanks-Landell, Basham, Freeman, Fleck, Coutts (O’Shea 85), Duffy (Carruthers 63), Lafferty, Hanson (Lavery 73), Sharp. Unused substitutes: Long, Done, Wright, Chapman.
Charlton Atheltic: Rudd, Byrne, Konsa, Bauer, Teixeira, Chicksen (Dasilva 84), Holmes, Forster-Caskey (Crofts 74), Ulvestad (Botaka 80), Novak, Watt. Unused substitutes: Jackson, Phillips, Ahearne-Grant, Hanlan.
Referee: S Duncan (Northumberland).