A FIRST victory for Leeds United at Bramall Lane since the momentous day the League title was won under Howard Wilkinson and once again Sheffield United gifted their rivals from up the M1 all three points.
For Brian Gayle and the late Mel Rees 26 years ago, read record signing John Egan and Dean Henderson this time around as another mix-up between centre-half and goalkeeper proved costly for the Blades.
Egan committed the first error, his pass back with just eight minutes remaining being so hard and so loose that Henderson was forced unnecessarily wide.
The loanee goalkeeper, who up to that point had been in unbeatable form, then compounded Egan’s error by making an even bigger one of his own by attempting a first-time pass to Jack O’Connell.
His execution was woeful and the ball went straight to Jack Clarke. Just 18 years old and making just his fifth appearance from the bench, the winger displayed maturity beyond his years by taking a touch, steadying himself and then rolling a pass to Pablo Hernandez as Henderson dived feet-first at the teenager in a desperate attempt to retrieve the situation.
Leeds’ Spanish playmaker did the rest by tapping into an unguarded net and the West Riding club had ended their long wait for a win in S2 at the ninth attempt.
If there is a positive to take, it is that we were the better team in a top-of-the-table clash.Sheffield United striker David McGoldrick
Compared to Gayle heading over Rees and into his own net back in 1992 to seal a 3-2 triumph for Leeds that ultimately brought a third title to Elland Road, the claiming of three Championship points by Marcelo Bielsa’s men has to be considered decidedly small beer.
But what Hernandez’s late winner did do is underline how seriously Leeds have to be taken in their quest to return to the Premier League after a 15-year absence.
For the third time in eight days, Bielsa’s men had been below par and yet this took their points tally in that period to a maximum nine. That this latest victory came on an afternoon when captain Liam Cooper became the latest key player to be lost to injury suggests they possess the mental fortitude to cope with the battle of endurance that is a Championship campaign.
“It is important to stay in this position,” said Hernandez, whose 82nd-minute strike briefly sent Leeds back to the summit only for Norwich City to later reclaim top spot with a home victory over Rotherham United.
“The next month is very important for us because we have a lot of games and the gap is so small between the first six or seven teams. If you lose two or three games in a row, you can drop back to sixth or seventh position.
“The goal was not the best shot in my life. But, importantly, we got the three points. We now have three wins in a row and we must keep the same spirit and style to keep that run going.”
Leeds’ delight at the final whistle was in stark contrast to the frustration felt elsewhere at the Lane.
Chris Wilder’s Blades players headed to London for their Christmas night out having contributed fully to a derby that, while never threatening to match those classic meetings of the past, had plenty going on to keep the 25,479 crowd engrossed.
The hosts had just as many chances as Leeds. Henderson was just as busy in the home goal as Bailey Peacock-Farrell, while this was the first time this season that Bielsa’s side had less than 50 per cent possession in a game.
All that, however, counted for nothing as a first home defeat since the opening day of the season saw United slip a place to sixth.
Not that David McGoldrick, twice denied by wonderful saves from Peacock-Farrell, was unduly disheartened at the end of an afternoon that, by rights, should have brought the hosts a share of the spoils.
“On our day we can beat anyone,” said the striker. “And if there is a positive to take, it is that we were the better team in a top-of-the-table clash.
“If we had scored first, we would have gone on and won the game. There were big moments. I had some. Definitely one in the second half. Billy (Sharp) had a big moment as well.
“The goal we conceded was sloppy. ‘Hendo’ is young – and he is a good goalkeeper. It is just one of those things.
“We have to stay positive. There is a long way to go and we have nothing to fear.”
McGoldrick’s two “big moments” came in each half. The first on 10 minutes saw the striker break from inside his own half before drilling a low shot that Peacock-Farrell did very well to turn around the post.
The Leeds goalkeeper proved McGoldrick’s equal once again just after the hour by blocking a shot with his legs after a mistake by Aapo Halme had put Leeds in grave danger on the edge of their penalty area.
In between, Sharp, normally so deadly against his old club, spurned a wonderful opportunity by heading wide when found six yards out just before the interval. Later, Conor Washington was unlucky to see his overhead kick strike the crossbar deep into stoppage time.
Bielsa’s side also had their fair share of openings. Halme brought a smart stop from Henderson, who also dealt admirably with efforts from Clarke and Mateusz Klich before Kemar Roofe headed agonisingly wide.
That seemed to be that until Hernandez punished Henderson to claim a victory whose true value may not be realised until the end of a season in which these Yorkshire rivals seem certain to go the distance.