Big Match Verdict – Sheffield United turn back clock to prove they are the real deal

Hero: Kieran Dowell is mobbed after his match-winning goal. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Hero: Kieran Dowell is mobbed after his match-winning goal. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
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IT was on a balmy summer afternoon in West Bromwich in August, 1989 where Sheffield United tantalisingly provided a first glimpse of their promotion credentials in that glorious, unforgettable campaign of 1989-90.

Just shy of three decades on and the present-day Blades claimed another victory of significance in the Black Country which is similarly likely to turn a few heads in second-tier circles.

This may not have been as dazzling as that Brian Deane and Tony Agana-inspired 3-0 win at The Hawthorns on the first day of the ’89-90 season but it was assured and authoritative all the same and made a clear statement.

Not quite the ‘Battle of Bramall Lane’ either, even if the stakes were indisputably high. Fortunately, the cool heads and refusal to blink arrived from those in fluorescent yellow.

After a controlled first half, United were sure-footed in their defensive work in the second, with their insatiable work-rate displaying the ravenous hunger of a side firmly intent upon sticking around in the automatic promotion scene right to the end.

A cathartic episode arrived by the final whistle, too.

We knew we had to be right on it. At this stage, when you get in at the final whistle, you are straight on your phone checking the results. It is about getting the results as you can.

Marvin Johnson

The pumped-up celebrations of goalkeeper Dean Henderson, refreshingly one of those modern-day players who is not concerned about wearing his heart on his sleeve in public, spoke volumes and exorcised a ghost from just down the road at Villa Park.

His late save to block at the feet of substitute Jefferson Montero and prevent him from scoring an undeserved equaliser – the Cumbrian custodian’s only meaningful work of a quiet game in truth – was a nerveless moment. It helped dispel memories of those bitter late events four miles away at Aston Villa in the process.

The save was referenced by Chris Wilder afterwards, as were the contributions of others in a strong collective effort when United were not for moving and became the first side to prevent West Brom from scoring on home soil in a league match this term.

No mean feat, given that the Blades did not start with regular centre-backs Chris Basham or Jack O’Connell. A third in John Egan made way with a calf issue at the interval.

Goal-scorer Kieran Dowell was afforded kudos for his beautifully guided early header, but there were quietly effective contributions across the board from the likes of Martin Cranie – who had a summer trial at West Brom – and Marvin Johnson. As the saying goes, teams do not win promotion, squads do.

Back on something akin to home turf, Birmingham-born Johnson justified his manager’s decision to allow him to keep the shirt with an indefatigable display which would have yielded a goal, but for a fine one-handed save from goalkeeper Sam Johnstone in the first half.

Ultimately, it was a day for the team and after pressure was loaded upon their shoulders following earlier wins for the likes of Norwich City and Leeds United, the Blades proved they are made of the right stuff as they moved back into the top two. Job done.

On holding their nerve in the late kick-off fixture, Johnson observed: “That is the hard thing. You do a lot of sitting around and you see the scores. You have got to make sure you get the right result, especially if the teams around you are winning.

“We knew we had to be right on it. At this stage, when you get in at the final whistle, you are straight on your phone checking the results. It is about getting the results as you can.

“We dug in and fought well. We knew we had to be really strong at the back.

“A lot of people are probably doubting us, being up there. But all of them have seen how we play and if we keep the same tempo, we will win more than we lose.

“You could say we are under the radar, but we are not bothered how people see us.”

A Gladiator-themed front cover to the match programme hinted at the importance of events, but in the event, this much-billed encounter was no epic.

Importantly, it was the visitors who won most of their individual battles, most certainly in the midfield combat zone where birthday boy Gareth Barry looked all of his 38 years with he and another one-time England international in Jake Livermore given the runaround, especially in the first half.

The only goal, when it came, was sweet, incisive and deadly.

Kieron Freeman’s pass to Cranie looked a touch heavy, but the Blades defender did superbly to manage hook over a cross close to the byline with Dowell’s looping header sailing over Johnstone for a splendid first Blades goal.

Operating between the lines, Dowell posed problems for the ragged Albion backline in the first period and it was his cute flick which soon set up Johnson, whose curler was turned away impressively by Johnstone.

Albion’s attacking prowess may be much lauded, but Dwight Gayle, booed by Blades fans on his return after a two-game ban for diving, and Jay Rodriguez got no change out of United’s backline.

Gayle just failed to get on the end of a scuffed shot from Rekeem Harper and Henderson tidily gathered Craig Dawson’s header but the hosts’ conviction in the final third was negligible.

The second half brought no concerted response from Albion and, despite encountering pockets of pressure, United held firm.

The unmarked Gayle should have done better from a cross from Kieran Gibbs – lucky not to be dismissed for an ugly challenge on Freeman – and while Rodriguez netted late on, he instantly owned up to a blatant handball.

Henderson then had his moment at the death but it was a rare moment of alarm in truth.