Chris Wilder was pleased with the reaction of his Sheffield United players as they beat Middlesbrough 1-0 a few days after their capitulation at Aston Villa thanks to substitute Richard Stearman’s first goal of the campaign.
Last Friday, the Blades threw away a 3-0 lead to draw 3-3 at Villa Park but they bounced back with a hard-earned victory - which saw them close the gap on the top two to just two points - against their fellow promotion hopefuls, with Stearman heading home Oliver Norwood’s free-kick just past the hour mark.
Boro’s woes were compounded three minutes later as Daniel Ayala’s rash challenge on Kieran Dowell led to a second booking and an early bath to leave Tony Pulis’ men up against it.
“It’s been a really difficult couple of days,” admitted Wilder. “We felt we had to produce a big performance against a very physical and direct side. We had to match them, although I didn’t think we did in the first half. We lost too many first and second balls and it was pretty even.
“We had to be a little bit more positive in our play in the second half and I thought we were and we have won a tight game. It was top end Championship football and I think a fair assessment is that we shaded the second half.
“I always thought we looked likely to score and win the game and thankfully we’ve done that.
“This group of players showed a tremendous reaction and we had to fight fire with fire and we gave it to them tonight. They are a strong side, but we stood up to them well and they didn’t like it, but I am not going to apologise.”
Mark Duffy was denied by a Darren Randolph wonder save early on, before Dean Henderson produced an equally good stop at the other end from Jordan Hugill.
But after a Billy Sharp goal was chalked off for offside, Stearman met Norwood’s delightful set-piece to head home at the back post and ultimately secure the points, before Ayala saw red for Boro a couple of minutes later.
Middlesbrough manager Pulis was unhappy with the appointment of referee Andy Woolmer and pointed the finger at the officials as the reason his side returned home to Teesside empty-handed.
“It was a big game, but my disappointment was with the two decisions for the goal,” said Pulis. “The linesman giving the first free-kick, when there was lots of stuff going on all night worse than that but not being given. And then the goal, he’s got his arms right over Dael (Fry) and if he’s going to give the free-kick for the foul out wide, then it’s beyond belief then that goal stands.
“I am disappointed. That was the referee’s eighth game this season in the Championship - we have played 32 this season. I don’t blame him, but those at the top... they’re getting Premier League referees to officiate games and that is disappointing.
“To give someone who has only refereed eight games a match of this calibre tonight, it is difficult to understand.”