Ex-Owl Clarke strikes double to dent promotion hopes of Blades

COVENTRY CITY may have been threatened with being homeless not so long ago but it is Sheffield United who are suddenly struggling on the domestic front.

After going into Christmas boasting League One’s only remaining unbeaten record in front of their own fans, United are craving some home comforts right now.

Leon Clarke’s double means Danny Wilson’s men have taken just five points from their last half dozen games at Bramall Lane.

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It is a remarkable fall from grace that has been as unexpected as it has damaging to the club’s promotion hopes.

Last night’s reverse – their third in a row after similar successes for Hartlepool and Yeovil – means United are in grave danger of dropping out of even the play-off places with Coventry City, courtesy of former Wednesday striker Clarke taking his tally of goals to five from the last six games, now breathing down the necks of Wilson’s men.

Just one point separates the Sky Blues – who threatened to leave the Ricoh Arena late last year over a rent row – in seventh place from the Blades in the final play-off berth and, considering just how well Mark Robins’s side played last night, they look an excellent bet to gatecrash the promotion race.

In abandoning his usual 4-5-1 formation to play two men up front, the City manager clearly believed his side were capable of inflicting a major psychological blow in the race for promotion.

For two thirds of the contest, such confidence seemed well placed as the visitors penned United back in their own territory for long periods.

At one stage in the first half, a plaintive cry of ‘Come on United, we’re not playing Real Madrid’ came from an angry voice sitting near the back of the main stand.

The clear inference was that the Blades were affording Coventry far too much respect. The reality, however, was not quite so black and white with the enterprising play of the Sky Blues making it difficult for the hosts to claim a toehold in the game.

With Franck Moussa in dominant mood through the centre and both Gary McSheffrey and Carl Baker providing excellent delivery from the flanks, Coventry underlined just why they are considered to be such a threat to the current top six.

Mind, as enterprising as the play of Robins’s men was, there was no doubt that the goal which put the visitors ahead was entirely a self-inflicted wound on the part of United.

Chris Porter, in attempting to control the ball on the touchline, inexplicably failed to do so and instead gave away a throw-in.

That was bad enough but when the resulting throw had found Carl Baker and he duly swung over an inviting cross, the Blades confounded Porter’s error by leaving Clarke unmarked to thunder a shot in off the underside of the crossbar

Coventry’s former Owl then incurred the wrath of the home fans by celebrating directly in front of the Kop.

The vitriol that poured down from the massed ranks of United fans was predictable, though nothing compared to what met the blowing of the half-time whistle by Chris Sarginson.

Jeers filled the air with the Lane faithful’s patience appearing to have snapped after a distinctly ordinary opening 45 minutes that had seen United fortunate to escape with just a one-goal deficit.

Certainly, Baker should have done a lot better early on than blaze over with the goal at his mercy after meeting Stephen 
Elliott’s drilled cross at the far post.

United were also relieved when an attempted Porter clearance from a McSheffrey corner that instead flew over George Long and towards the back of the six-yard box did so without any visiting player on hand to apply the finish.

Clarke, too, could have had a second five minutes before the break when only a fine block by Harry Maguire prevented the Sky Blues striker from firing goalwards when deep inside the United penalty area

In contrast to the enterprising visitors, United offered little in attack during a one-sided first half with a 20-yard effort from Dave Kitson – that William Edjenguele blocked with his chest – the best of an uninspiring lot.

Much to the relief of the home fans in the 17,511 crowd, the Blades improved markedly after the break with the introduction of new signings Jonathan Forte and Barry Robson from the bench playing a big part.

Forte was the first to seriously threaten the Coventry goal with a neat shot on the turn that Joe Murphy smothered at the second attempt.

United then had a huge penalty appeal turned down midway through the second half when Kevin McDonald was upended trying to reach a Kitson knockdown only for the officials to wave play on.

The decision left manager Danny Wilson incensed but his mood improved markedly just five minutes later when Kitson headed in Robson’s corner.

Kitson almost repeated the trick, this time with his right boot, 13 minutes from time and at that stage United looked the more likely winner.

There was, though, to be a sting in the tail for the Blades with Clarke swooping to net the winner three minutes from time after George Long had only been able to parry Moussa’s effort.

Sheffield United: Long; McMahon, Maguire, Collins, Higginbotham; Flynn, McDonald, Doyle, Murphy (Robson 71); Kitson, Porter (Forte 54). Unused substitutes: Westlake, Cresswell, Ironside, Coyne, De Girolamo.

Coventry City: Murphy; Christie, Wood, Edjenguele; Adams; Baker, Jennings, Moussa, McSheffrey (Fleck 74); Elliott (Thomas 69), Clarke. Unused substitutes: Clarke, Cameron, Dunn, Barton, Ball.

Referee: C Sarginson (Staffordshire).