ON the 20th anniversary of one of the most extraordinary matches ever involving Sheffield United, there was no gracious offer of a rematch at this contest’s conclusion.
It was on February 13, 1999 that former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger famously made the magnanimous gesture of replaying their FA Cup fifth-round tie against the Blades – to erase the Gunners’ 2-1 ‘victory’ in the interests of fairness.
That offer, accepted by the Football Association, came after Arsenal breached the accepted etiquette of returning the ball to opponents who had kicked it out of play to allow an injured player to be treated – and promptly scored a winning goal instead.
The stakes may have been similarly high last night at the top end of the Championship, but thankfully there were no such levels of post-match controversy – even if a feisty second-half did possess a few flashpoints.
The main drama arrived thanks to the impetuosity of hot-blooded Boro defender Daniel Ayala, who gathered two preventable cautions in the space of seven minutes to exit the fray on 64 minutes – as the visitors saw a player dismissed for the second successive season at Bramall Lane.
As far as the Blades were concerned, the pertinent development arrived three minutes earlier when the recalled Richard Stearman picked an opportune time to register his first goal of the season and earn the hosts a fifth straight home league win.
It moved them to within two points of second-placed Norwich, while Boro’s tenuous hold on the final play-off place is down to goal difference alone.
Not at their best maybe, but this was a merited Blades victory.
Ahead of the game, Boro boasted the best record against their top-six rivals in the Championship, with a reverse at Norwich being their only entry in the losses column.
This rare relapse arrived with an added sting, as Tony Pulis’s side – just like on Saturday against Leeds United – conceded another key goal from a set-piece, something which will not sit well with their manager.
Despite being without two of their defensive mainstays in Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell, the Blades – with former Boro player Martin Cranie making his home league debut – were afforded limited disruption at the back. After his fraught finale at Villa Park, Dean Henderson, handed a warm ovation ahead of kick-off, was called into action just once in the first half, adeptly turning over a curler from Jordan Hugill shortly before the break.
Displaying tempo and confidence in their probing approach play, United looked the most likely and had the edge in a match which always looked like being hard-fought at its outset.
Their best moment arrived early when only a brilliant one-handed save by Darren Randolph kept out Mark Duffy’s fine 25-yarder – to prevent the hosts from crowning their frenetic start with a breakthrough.
Boro gradually shook off the rust, but lacked penetration and devilment going forward, despite some classy prompting from John-Obi Mikel.
After the major early scare, the lack of genuine first-half alarms at the back was a more satisfying development for Boro, although that was tempered by the loss of Aden Flint to injury.
Billy Sharp was kept relatively quiet, although a crisp low shot on the turn which was gathered by Randolph ahead of the interval served as a warning.
United, who were handed a further defensive issue after George Baldock limped off, upped the ante on the restart in throwing on a third forward in Gary Madine.
An eventful start to the second half ensued with the set-piece route almost yielding a Boro opener.
From Ryan Shotton’s long throw, George Friend’s header was cleared from close to his own line by John Egan before substitute Stewart Downing’s long-ranger almost caught out Henderson.
Boro soon survived a big penalty appeal after Madine appeared to be tugged back by Shotton, with the former Sheffield Wednesday striker still managing to get an attempt in on goal which was blocked by Randolph.
Referee Andy Woolmer was soon unmoved when Ayala tussled with Madine, as the hosts forced the issue and after a Sharp strike was instantly disallowed for offside, a legitimate goal soon followed as the pressure told.
Norwood’s quality delivery was headed in at the far post by Stearman and soon after, what promised to be a tough night got a whole lot worse for the visitors.
Ayala, booked earlier in the half for a clumsy foul on David McGoldrick, tested the patience of Woolmer once too often after another needless challenge, this time on Kieran Dowell – with the second caution possessing an air of inevitability.
United were afforded few scares in the final 25 minutes as they comfortably saw out the game.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Cranie, Egan, Stevens; Baldock (Stearman 45), Norwood, Fleck, Duffy (Madine 45), Dowell; McGoldrick, Sharp (Coutts 87). Substitutes unused: Lundstram, Hogan, Bryan, Moore.
Middlesbrough: Randolph; Fry, Flint (Downing 34), Ayala; Shotton, Howson (Van La Parra 81), Saville (Assombalonga 67), Friend; Wing, Hugill. Substitutes unused: Konstantopoulos, Clayton, Fletcher, Besic.
Referee: A Woolmer (Northants).