NOT so much a Good Friday as a great one for Sheffield United.
A bizarre own goal by Tranmere Rovers defender Ash Taylor was enough to lift the Blades above their hosts in the League One table and fuel hopes that Danny Wilson’s men can go on to clinch automatic promotion.
Thanks to results elsewhere, United remain two points adrift of Bournemouth in second place and four behind leaders Doncaster Rovers.
With games in hand on all their rivals in the top six, United have to be taken seriously as title challengers – a point underlined by a very satisfied Wilson after his side had successfully negotiated the potentially tricky trip to Prenton Park.
He said: “In the grand scheme of things, it is a massive three points. At the home of one of our main rivals, we put in a big performance and a big result.
“Going into the game, we felt it was important to remain on the shirt-tails of the teams above us and we did that. Automatic promotion is the target, that hasn’t changed since day one.
“In beating Tranmere how we did, I think we showed that we mean business. After what happened at Stevenage (when United lost 4-0 a fortnight ago), to perform like we did was very pleasing.
“We are now back on track and a result like this is a massive boost. The same goes for our performance.
“I thought we were pretty much in control throughout. We controlled most of the play, we played the game at a tempo we wanted to play at and we didn’t allow them to get a head of steam up.
“I can’t think of our goalkeeper having a shot to save, whereas their goalkeeper made two good saves and we also hit the crossbar.
“There aren’t many teams who will go to Tranmere and put in a performance like ours. How many times have Tranmere played at home and not had a shot on goal?
“I’d suggest the number of times that has happened can be counted on one finger and that was against us.”
Moments of quality were few and far between in what was a scrappy game.
A pitch containing almost as much sand as the nearby New Brighton beach was the cause, with neither set of players able to rely on the ball running truly on such a rutted and uneven surface.
This was never better illustrated than in the 42nd minute when United scored what proved to be the winning goal in bizarre fashion.
As Tony McMahon’s ambitious 40-yard shot dribbled into the Rovers penalty area, there appeared little danger.
That was until Taylor, however, in attempting to perform what should have been a routine clearance, could only slice the ball horribly towards his own goal.
Goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams did his best to spare his team-mate’s blushes with a despairing dive, but it was to no avail as the ball trickled into the corner of the net.
As the 2,200 travelling fans celebrated at the opposite end of Prenton Park, Taylor could only stare accusingly at the surface – the clear inference being that a bobble had been behind his miscue.
For the Blades, the goal represented a slice of outrageous fortune – though possibly one their first-half display had deserved.
Certainly, the few instances of decent play in those opening 45 minutes had all come from the visitors with only a stunning save by Fon Williams preventing Wilson’s men from taking the lead midway through the half.
Jonathan Forte was the Blades player denied on that occasion, a neat one-two with Dave Kitson having allowed the Southampton loanee to race clear of the defence before unleashing a shot that, but for Fon Williams’s stunning one-handed save, would have found the net.
Tranmere improved after the break and managed to apply some early pressure to the Blades’ goal.
However, with the defensive resolve which before the blip at Stevenage had seen United go 10-and-a-half hours without conceding making a notable return, the home side were restricted to little more than a couple of half chances.
First, Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro looped an effort on to the top of the net. Then, after appearing to have stolen a yard on the visitors’ defence, the French striker was about to shoot when Matthew Hill pulled off a timely tackle.
So impressive, in fact, were the Blades in snuffing out Rovers’ attacking threat that George Long did not have a save to make until the 82nd minute.
Even then it was little more than a routine catch to keep out a weak shot from substitute Adam McGurk.
At the other end, Ryan Flynn came close to doubling United’s advantage with a fierce 20-yard shot that crashed against the crossbar before the ball was hacked to safety.
Barry Robson also brought a flying save from Fon Williams at the finish as the visitors closed strongly to underline just how merited their victory had been.
Tranmere Rovers: Fon Williams; Holmes, Gibson, Taylor, McGinty; Bell-Baggie (McGurk 65), Power, Palmer, Bakayogo; Akpa Akpro, Sidibe. Unused substitutes: Goodison, Harrison, Stockton, Kay, O’Halloran, Mooney.
Sheffield United: Long; McMahon, Maguire, Collins, Hill; Robson, McDonald, Doyle, Flynn; Kitson; Forte (Poleon 89). Unused substitutes: Westlake, Higginbotham, Porter, Ironside, McFadzean, Coyne.
Referee: A Haines (Tyne & Wear).