Maguire’s header opens historic season with Blades win for Weir

IN 110 seasons of the Football League being played at Bramall Lane, a multitude of exciting encounters have passed into Sheffield United folklore.

Sheffield United's Harry Maguire (2nd left) celebrates with Michael Doyle (left) and Fabian Brandy
Sheffield United's Harry Maguire (2nd left) celebrates with Michael Doyle (left) and Fabian Brandy

Along the way, there has been drama, upset, elation and dejection aplenty but, in terms of pure satisfaction, David Weir is unlikely to have a night quite like the one that marked not only the start of the 2013-14 season but also his competitive debut as a manager.

Goals from Kevin McDonald and Harry Maguire were enough to ensure the Blades made a winning start under the Scot, whose players were afforded a deserved standing ovation from the 17,944 crowd at the final whistle.

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The joy of the locals was understandable with United having bossed an encounter that saw 10-man Notts County only briefly threaten to ruin Weir’s bow in the home dugout when Enoch Showunmi produced a stunning finish to cancel out McDonald’s opener.

Considering how many times points that seemed theirs for the taking had been thrown away at the Lane last season, Showunmi’s strike on the hour could have had a debilitating effect.

Instead, United merely remained calm, kept passing the ball and their reward was a victory that had the home fans chanting ‘we are top of the league’ as they headed out into the warm Sheffield night.

Outplaying a team reduced to 10 men for 77 minutes following the early dismissal of Gary Liddle is, admittedly, not usually sufficient to fire the imagination of supporters desperate to escape League One at the third attempt.

However, what did offer huge encouragement to the United faithful last night was the polished manner of United’s performance.

Weir deserves the credit for the pleasing-on-the-eye style adopted by his charges with the one-time Scotland international having worked so hard to instil what he considers to be good habits during pre-season.

Short-sided games have been the norm at United’s Shirecliffe training base with the emphasis on quick, precise passing and the benefits of that were evident from the opening stages.

With Stephen McGinn and Michael Doyle anchoring the midfield, the Blades were neat and tidy in possession as they pushed and probed the visitors.

McDonald, playing just behind lone frontman Chris Porter in a 4-2-3-1 formation, particularly suited the new approach and it was no coincidence that the Scot should be involved in the first half’s two standout moments.

First, he was flattened by an ugly chest-high challenge from Liddle that left referee Keith Stroud with little option but to red card the County defender.

That the incident came just 15 seconds after George Long had denied Danny Haynes with a stunning reflex save gave weight to the belief that the night’s turning point had been reached.

And so it proved with the Blades taking a deserved lead on the half-hour after another free-flowing move that had seen the ball worked out wide for the overlapping Darryl Westlake ended with McDonald firing past Bartosz Bialowski.

Going ahead was just reward for how enterprising United had been in those opening 30 minutes and they could have gone further in front before the break.

Febian Brandy, whose nimble feet look an exciting addition to the Blades’ ranks, and McDonald then went close to doubling the lead before the break.

The onslaught continued after the restart with County having a further trio of let-offs in quick succession.

First, McDonald’s drilled effort was somehow kept out by Bialowski. Then, after Brandy had cleverly worked an opening down the left, Chris Porter inexplicably fired over from six yards with the goal at his mercy.

Porter was again culpable moments later when he failed to apply the finishing touch to a shot from Neill Collins that was just begging to be converted.

United’s profligacy was punished just before the hour when former Leeds United striker Showunmi showed great strength to create an opening on the edge of the area before drilling a low shot beyond Long.

Last season, that might have been it for a United side who on too many occasions let winning positions slip from their grasp.

Last night, however, was very different as the home side merely redoubled their efforts and re-took the lead midway through the half.

A free-kick by the excellent McGinn, who rarely wasted a pass all night, created the opening that the unmarked centre-half Maguire gladly accepted by 
powering a header beyond Bialkowski.

Lyle Taylor, the £250,000 summer capture from Falkirk, then came close to adding a third before Mark Fotheringham fired a late volley wide to ensure Weir’s first game in charge ended on a happy note.

All in all, therefore, a fitting way for United, who have played more Football League games than any other Yorkshire club, to kickstart the competition’s 125th anniversary celebrations.

Sheffield United: Long; Westlake, Maguire, Collins, Williams; McGinn, Doyle (Coady 80); Murphy (McFadzean 66), McDonald, Brandy; Porter (Taylor 67). Unused substitutes: Howard, Hill, Flynn, McGinty.

Notts County: Bialowski; Dumbuya, Liddle, Leacock, Sheehan; Labadie (Tempest 58), Fotheringham, Boucard; Campbell-Ryce; Haynes (Zoko 65), Arquin (Showunmi 56). Unused substitutes: Smith, Coombes, Thompson, Spiess.

Referee: K Stroud (Hampshire).