Sheffield United have issued warning to Championship promotion rivals

Richard Stearman believes that Sheffield United have sent out a clear statement of intent to their promotion rivals after holding their nerve to claim three precious points against Middlesbrough.

Get in: Richard Stearman heads the winner against Middlesbrough at Bramall Lane. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Five days on from their dramatic late collapse at Aston Villa, when the Blades squandered a 3-0 lead with eight minutes to go to allow the hosts to grab an unlikely point, United showed their mettle to edge out high-flying rivals Boro 1-0 in a key fixture at the top end of the Championship.

In the process United, who moved to within two points of Norwich City – who dropped to second place after a surprise 3-1 reverse at Preston North End – secured just their second victory so far this season against a side currently in the top six.

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Stearman, who came on just before the break for the injured George Baldock, proved the surprise hero after netting the only goal of the game – casting aside his frustration at being on the periphery for much of this season.

It helped the Blades claim their fifth league triumph on the trot at Bramall Lane where the hosts had been beaten by promotion rivals Leeds United and West Brom earlier this winter.

The 31-year-old centre-back, who netted his first goal in nearly a year, said: “I thought that was massive for us, especially after dropping a couple of points. It was important we bounced back.

“It is vitally important that you beat the teams around you. You have got to send a message out.”

Afforded a sweet personal moment with his 61st-minute goal, Stearman, who has made just two league starts for United so far this term, added: “You saw the frustration come out when I scored.

“It has been a tough season for myself, personally, but I have got my head down and supported the lads. That is what you have got to do. It is not about 11 players, and I have got to be ready when called upon.

“I know my role in the team. I have tried to support the other lads in my position, and I will always do that. Hopefully, be it in the team or off the bench, I will always do my bit to try and help us get across the line. That is my focus; the group.

“I thought Gary (Madine) made a difference and Kieran (Dowell), playing a position for the first time, was absolutely superb. Martin (Cranie) also came in and grew into the game.”

The night had the makings of being a disruptive one, with first-choice defenders Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell missing through suspension and injury, respectively. But the Blades overcame adversity and the input of several of the club’s squad players, who stepped out of the shadows, drew justifiable praise from Wilder.

The win may have lacked the sparkle of previous home victories against the likes of Villa and Derby this season and other exulted episodes, but given the circumstances Wilder acknowledged it was perhaps as significant as any during his reign.

The Blades’ chief, whose side host struggling Reading tomorrow, observed: “Pound for pound it is right up there in terms of how long I have been at the club and the significance of the game and where the two teams are.

“Definitely after Friday night this spoke volumes about the players and how they care and wanted to get back to winning ways and I said that in the little huddle afterwards.

“It was always going to be tight when it was third against fifth with 15 games to go. They (Boro) had the best record out of the top six, head to head, so to win against them is very satisfying.

“We have to show all the qualities we did in the second half if we are going to keep in the mix. I believe we can and we will.”

The Blades’ keynote victory further added to the suspense at the top of the Championship in a midweek programme that saw previous leaders Norwich suffer a shock loss and West Brom and Derby County also drop points.

The chief beneficiaries of the latest developments were third-placed Blades and Leeds, with the latter holding a three-point lead over their White Rose rivals.

The intrigue is likely to continue in the coming weeks with Wilder’s side visiting West Brom tomorrow week and heading to Elland Road on March 16, 12 days after facing a Sheffield derby at Hillsborough.

Wise to the unpredictable nature of the Championship, Wilder says that his only prediction is that a compelling promotion race is likely to go “down to the wire”.

“There are so many twists and turns right the way through and you saw that with the (Wednesday) results, with Leeds winning and Norwich getting beat and us winning,” he said.

“I think it will go right down to the wire and it will be important that you keep everybody fit and keep your nerve and that you recover well from disappointment.

“The big thing for me was the recovery from Friday night because there are going to be disappointments between now and the end of the season for every team involved in that top six to 10.

“It is how you respond and that was a massively pleasing thing as far as I was concerned.”