AGAINST visitors from a town forever associated with the railway industry, Sheffield United ensured that their League One play-off hopes have not reached the end of the line just yet.
It will have surprised few Unitedites that the fateful contribution in an entertaining, if slightly madcap spectacle was provided by a figure that the Blades have been indebted to all season in Billy Sharp.
Ahead of the game, the goal poacher supreme spoke about his boyhood club having no margin for error in their top-six endeavours and he assumed personal responsibility to ensure that they have stayed in the race. Just.
Sharp’s goals have bailed out his boyhood club on numerous occasions this term.
As they most definitely did yesterday, with his predatory, sweet 17th goal of the season – in a third return to the Lane which is proving infinitely more rewarding than the previous two spells put together – arguably being his most important to date.
His header three minutes from time following substitute Louis Reed’s inviting cross applied considerable relief after a second half in which Nigel Adkins’s side were as flustered and flaky as they were controlled and assertive in the first.
Many would be right in venturing that this see-saw match was a bit of a microcosm of the Blades’ stuttering campaign when the only thing consistent about it has been its inconsistency.
Ever the optimist, Adkins, whose Scunthorpe side nicked into the play-offs on the final day of the 2008-09 campaign and went on to clinch promotion, had spoken about the Blades not giving in and crucially his side took heed of his clarion call.
The Blades, as is their wont, did it the hard way with Crewe rallying from two goals down after belatedly realising their divisional status was on the line.
Even after Sharp’s third, they laid siege for a leveller but the nervy Blades, somehow, held out in a memorable game in a so far largely forgettable season, but with just the hint of more significant developments ahead.
A portent of things to come was not provided in a serene and comfortable first half for the hosts, when the home supporters basked in the early Spring sunshine and saw some vibrant fare.
Admittedly, the sense of well-being was aided by the sight of a poor and dispirited Crewe side, who were subjugated for the half’s entirety.
Being picky, the only issue for the hosts at the interval was the fact that the game had not been put out of reach of the lowly visitors, who looked every inch a side who had not won in eight games – while you had to go back to November 24 for their previous win on the road.
Crewe may have acquiesced and looked bereft in the first period, but as much as they were feeble, the Blades conjured a number of quality moments. The first salvo in a long half for Crewe arrived when Ben Garratt was forced to make a brilliant one-handed reflex save to keep out Jon Brayford’s point-blank header.
Sharp was calling the shots alongside the recalled Che Adams up front and the pair manufactured a delicious moment on 14 minutes, with the latter superbly cutting the ball back to United’s top-scorer, whose sweet curler crashed against a post.
Unitedites, enthused by the early home efforts, did not have to wait long to hail an opener with neat work by Sharp and Ryan Flynn sending Adams clear and the striker – pursued by Crewe before heading to Bramall Lane – steered the ball coolly past Garrett.
Crewe’s response was negligible with the Blades continuing to boss proceedings, the recalled Paul Coutts firing wide after a surging run from Harrison McGahey, on his first league start since October 24.
The offside flag then denied Sharp before Adams, justifying his recall after recently being dropped for a perceived poor attitude in training, dragged a shot inches wide before the break.
Perhaps inspired by a few half-time words from manager Steve Davis to remind them they were in a relegation battle, Crewe finally awoke from their slumbers in the second period and forced the Blades back with some overdue offensive aggression.
A combination of George Long and Jay McEveley denied Bradden Inman as he bore down on goal before the previously under-employed Blades goalkeeper had to be alert to turn away Charlie Kirk’s effort at the near post. Crewe sustained the tempo before the Blades afforded themselves some respite with a cushion with their first second-half opportunity just after the hour mark.
Coutts’s cross from the right was headed towards goal by the unmarked Sharp and after the ball was only half-cleared close to the line, Flynn improvised adeptly to hook in the rebound acrobatically from close range.
The strike was not the precursor to the Blades seeing the game out in comfort, with Crewe, to their credit, pulling one back seven minutes later when David Fox’s fiercely-struck low shot flew past Long from 20 yards out.
Lamentable defending enabled unmarked visiting captain Harry Davis to turn the ball home following substitute Callum Ainley’s pullback.
Crewe reckoned without the ravenous instincts of Sharp, but they still poured forward for an equaliser at the close with Charlie Kirk and Ollie Turton going desperately close, Matt Done making a saving block to deny the latter.
The final whistle enabled the Blades to breathe again, as they cut the gap on the all-important top six play-off positions to four points.