SHEFFIELD United’s victory at Burton Albion last night came at a potentially significant price.
The chants of ‘We’re Sheffield United, we’re top of the league’ were not sung as heartily as they should have been by the travelling Unitedites because of a broken leg sustained just before the interval by Paul Coutts.
On an evening when the visitors underlined, to anyone yet to be convinced by their credentials, that they are very much the real deal in the Championship promotion stakes, Coutts’s injury provided the main post-match talking point.
Shortly before half-time the Scot was on the receiving end of a high challenge from Burton striker Marvin Sordell that was clumsy at best and reckless at worst.
Concerns were soon obvious as Coutts lay prostrate on the ground, with some Burton players quickly signalling for a stretcher.
It was a distressing moment, with the Blades commendably maintaining their composure to see things out in the second half.
Leon Clarke’s 78th-minute clincher added to a Billy Sharp first-half brace to record a 12th win in 17 Championship games for manager Chris Wilder’s irrepressible troops.
At a venue whose naming rights belong to a renowned tyre manufacturer, the Blades’ juggernaut powered on, although the hole left by the absence of a talismanic force this season in Coutts will be a sizeable one to fill.
Rival managers Wilder and ex-Blades chief Nigel Clough have travelled a fair distance from their days doing the hard yards in the muck and nettles of non-league football, but the gulf in class between their respective sides was obvious last night – even if the Blades were rather more inhibited on the restart.
During their time in the second tier, Clough’s side have turned over several big names at the Pirelli Stadium and went into last night’s game with a proud record of not having lost to a Sheffield side in five previous meetings.
But in truth, this result was never seriously in doubt, even if a tremendous strike just after the half-hour mark from Matty Palmer briefly gave the Brewers a sniff, only for Sharp soon to restore normal service.
The Blades looked every inch an automatic promotion contender in a first half full of smart movement, incisive build-up play and innate confidence in their collective abilities, with browbeaten Burton entitled to be thankful to still be in the game at the interval.
That said, it was a half which ultimately had a sour finish for the visitors due to Coutts’s injury, with captain Sharp quickly making his feelings about the challenge known to the fourth official.
Before that, it was easy to see why these sides were residing at opposite ends of the table, with the Blades displaying a hint of swagger on occasions, but having to settle for the two goals. They both arrived from Sharp and just as his tenth-minute penalty was emphatic, after being clumsily bundled over by former Blades academy product Kyle McFadzean, his second was similarly unerring.
The latter arrived just three minutes after the Brewers were afforded a spot of respite with a glorious 30-yard strike out of nothing from Palmer.
But, suitably affronted, the dominant Blades soon reclaimed the hegemony with a neat dummy from ex-Burton man Mark Duffy bamboozling the home defence after Cameron Carter-Vickers pass .
Sharp did the rest, coolly firing past Stephen Bywater after charging clear.
A first-time strike from Clarke that hit the outside of a post almost added a third before the break, which would not have flattered United.
After the serious looking developments regarding Coutts put a significant dampener on proceedings for the visitors, it was perhaps understandable that their early offerings in the second period were muted in comparison to the first.
United remained commendably resolute and professional and despite more assertion from Burton, Jamal Blackman’s goal was protected with care and due diligence.
The action was tame compared to the first period, with Carter-Vickers producing a timely block to get in the way of Jamie Allen’s goalbound effort, and Chris Basham shanked a volley wide when well placed.
With the Blades still to kill off the hosts, Clough’s side had an inkling of hope, but they lacked composure, with Lukas Akins’s wild shot summing up their unsatisfactory efforts.
The scoreboard may have been Burton’s friend to some degree, but their hopes were extinguished when Clarke’s stooping downward header sailed past Bywater following John Fleck’s sweet and precise cross.
Burton Albion: Bywater; McFadzean, Buxton, Turner, Warnock (Naylor 81); Lund, Murphy, Palmer, Allen (Scannell 65); Dyer (Akins 26); Sordell. Unused substitutes: Ripley, Flanagan, Varney, Miller.
Sheffield United: Blackman; Carter-Vickers, Wright, O’Connell; Basham, Coutts (Lundstram 45), Fleck, Duffy (Carruthers 88), Stevens; Clarke, Sharp (Brooks 71). Unused substitutes: Moore, Donaldson, Stearman, Lafferty.
Referee: O Langford (West Midlands).