It was another victory for the Blades in their final league fixture of 2011 as they comfortably saw off visiting Hartlepool at Bramall Lane. Three first half goals from Ryan Flynn, Chris Porter and Ched Evans made the game safe before the interval. The second half the home side coasted and only poor finishing and good goalkeeping prevented the score line being increased further. A late consolation from Peter Hartley with the last kick of the game gave the visitors some reward for an improved second half performance but the result was never in doubt.
United had to make changes with Quinn and Cresswell suspended; bringing in Williamson and Porter with Beattie still on the bench. Danny Philliskirk had a rare chance on the bench. Hartlepool were under new manager Neale Cooper for the first time but it was first team coach Micky Barron who picked the side that included numerous links with South Yorkshire. Former Blade Evan Horwood started as did United fan and ex Owl Ritchie Humphries and former Miller Andy Monkhouse. The visitors had been very successful away from home and included firepower and experience on their bench in James Brown, Adam Boyd and the veteran Nobby Solano.
It was the home side that began very strongly and forced three early corners with Hartlepool scrambling the final one clear. A miskicked clearance from former Barnsley keeper Flinders nearly gave Evans a chance. United were well on top with Lowton getting forward at every opportunity and Evans looking lively. United’s early pressure was rewarded with a goal and it was FLYNN who got it, scoring for the second successive game. McDonald had nearly played in Evans but as the ball dropped Flynn worked a yard of space just outside the box before hitting a firm low shot beyond Flinders right hand.
Hartley was then booked for a clumsy foul on Evans and the Welsh striker fired just wide from the subsequent free kick from around 30 yards. Good industry from Flynn saw him win a tackle and this led to another chance for Evans who fired his shot just past the post. Baldwin then caught McDonald with a late tackle and the visitors were struggling to get a foothold in the game. United were playing with pace and purpose and it was not long before the Blades doubled their advantage. It came from an excellently worked team goal. The build up began on the left hand side of the field with Doyle feeding Evans whose back heel released the overlapping Flynn. The Scottish winger hit a perfect cross that PORTER stooped to head home at the far post. It was a really clever move that was well made and well finished.
United had been in complete control and the visitors had not really had anything of note until a strange moment when Lowton sliced a cross that came in onto his own bar via Simonsen. In truth it would have been a goal out of the blue and it was not long before United continued to assert their authority on the game. Doyle and Williamson combined to feed Lowton who sent over a lovely low cross that was turned in by EVANS. Lowton had picked up a knock seemingly in crossing the ball but was able to carry on. It was not long before half time and the home fans warmly applauded the side off for a commanding first half performance.
The new Hartlepool management team had seen enough and made two changes for the beginning of the second half with Brown and Boyd giving them a more attacking looking line up. Baldwin and Murray were the men withdrawn. The visitors did force a few early corners but these came to nothing before Horwood drove a free kick wide. United still looked dangerous and McDonald played in Evans whose cross really ought to have been converted by Porter who inexplicably fired over with the goal at his mercy. From the next attack Flynn cut in and his cross cum shot was palmed away by Flinders.
After the injury he sustained in the first half; Lowton was taken off being replaced by Ertl who went straight to right back. Evans had a shot that was deflected and well saved by Flinders. Soon after a marauding run by the striker took him away from two defenders but his cross somehow evaded everyone in the box with just a touch being required. Collins had to be helped off for Hartlepool with James coming on for the defender. Evans than nearly scored again when another effort was beaten away from Flinders. The game ensured a scrappy period of play with United looking very comfortable in seeing off any threat from the visitors.
The crowd had been singing his name and finally Danny Wilson brought on the returning hero; James Beattie who replaced Porter with just under 10 minutes to play. Beattie then played in Evans with a neat flick but as United’s leading scorer went round the keeper he lost his footing. There was no question it was a penalty with many of the visiting fans asking the referee to book Evans for simulation.
Montgomery came on for McDonald as the game entered an additional three minutes of stoppage time. Hartlepool had applied a modicum of pressure but had not looked like scoring until some sloppy defending from a corner saw the ball fall to HARTLEY who fired under Simonsen. The visiting fans celebrated wildly like it was the winning goal but you could not deny them some jubilation as it had been a miserable afternoon for them up to that point. Not long after the final whistle came and signalled United’ sixth consecutive win and their eighth straight in all competitions.
United – A really solid and professional performance. United started very well and were bang up for it from the start. They won tackles, picked up loose balls and controlled the football all over the field. When we had it we passed well with speed and purpose and got the ball back to front quickly either by long balls or by playing through midfield. There was a nice variety in our play with Evans and Porter threatening and real width coming from Flynn, Lowton and Williamson meaning we sucked them out of position constantly. We scored three well taken goals that were well made and executed. We could have had 3 or 4 more and in the second half only poor finishing and good keeping prevented more goals going in.
We maybe slowed up a bit after the break but with a game to come in 2 days (a very tough one at Carlisle too) maybe the players had one eye on this. They were still very comfortable and did enough to ensure we won the game and as I say with better finishing it could have been a real hammering. In truth that what the game was 3-1 flattered Hartlepool. After a few scrappy but winning performances in the early part of this run; United have found some real form and have played well in recent weeks. They have been more like the early season side and have played some nice football, created lots of chances and defended well. It was enjoyable to watch and none of the side had bad games with performances ranging from solid-good-very good. Williamson and Porter came back in and did ok and we did not really miss Quinn and Cresswell (would bring the latter back at Carlisle though).
We have a few touch away games to come (Carlisle and Bury sandwiched in between Yeovil at home) but we are doing very well at the moment and after a few scrappy less than convincing runs that started this run; our recent performances have started to really improve and we have added some fluidity and creativity to the steel in the side. Wednesday and Huddersfield are going to keep winning I am sure so we have to keep going. We have some very hard away games at some of the high fliers and it is going to be tough to stay in the top two but at the start of the season most felt the playoffs would be a reach and now those at least should be achievable considering the gap between us and 7th place (12 points). With Wednesday, Huddersfield, MK Dons and Charlton dropping points it has been an excellent few days all in all.
Hartlepool – Really poor side. They were never in the game from the start and were well beaten. We forced them back early on and they could never really get out. They have been winning a lot away from home and obviously have been setting up the same on the road every week. I thought they would make it really hard for us and having their new manager there would also make them determined to impress. They began quite defensively in their shape. This meant they played with a 5 in midfield; with one just in front of the back four and then just one up top. The idea I suppose is they offer protection to the defence and break quickly giving support to the loan front man with wide men but it did not work today.
You could say conceding early did not help their game plan as they have won a lot of away games 1 or 2-0 but even before this we were well on top. After we scored the first I thought they might change things but they did not and when it went 2-0 then you felt they could not get back in it and it could have been even more than 3 at half time. They really struggled with the movement and touch of United and Evans was too much for them to handle. They seemed slower than us all over the field and unlike Notts County did not even get in and get amongst the Blades players giving us time and space to pick out passes/crosses. The keeper was given no protection whatsoever and there were strangely big gaps between the defence and midfield despite their supposed superiority in numbers in this area! United are not known for their pace but they looked really slow and ponderous. It seemed as if they knew the game was up after we scored though and never really looked like they had the belief to come back or even make it that difficult.
The second half makes it look like they shut up shop and did much better and of course scored late on but it was maybe their only real shot on goal of the half (only one in first half was when Lowton miskicked it). We also missed 4 or 5 really good chances and it could easily have been 5 or 6-0. We took our foot off the gas a bit and did not attack as much but we still created enough to score and poor final balls or crosses that just evaded the strikers meant they did not concede again. Their keeper also played really well and made numerous saves.
Maybe it was just a bad day at the office but credit to United for winning most of the individual battles and dominating the game from start to finish. Of course we still have to go to Hartlepool later in the season and I am sure they will give us a far tougher game up there.
Simonsen 7/10 – Had little to do for much of the game. Made one reaction save (or did it hit the bar – unsure?) from his own man (Lowton) in the first half but other than that I am struggling to think of many difficult saves he had to make. Most of what he had to do was routine stuff; kicking, throwing and taking a couple of long balls. The goal at the death was similar to the Torquay late goal when it was drilled under his body and he had little chance. He was clearly frustrated with his defence for not clearing the ball and preventing a clean sheet.
Lowton 7/10 – Had a really good first half where he defended ok but faced with little in the way of a direct out and out winger, he got up field and supplanted almost every attack we had. He was involved in many of our better moves and showed some lovely pieces of control and skill in many of the attacks we had. Contributed to a number of chances/opportunities and made the third goal. Nearly scored a bizarre own goal with a sliced clearance. Hopefully he was taken off more as a precaution as he did seem to pick up a knock when crossing for Evans goal.
Francois 7/10 – Defensively thought he was very good. He won a lot of tackles, headers and blocks and got in better positions defensively. Very good athlete and does read the game quite well. He covers a lot of ground and gets up and down the flank. He still does some strange things at times and there were a few awful crosses/sliced passes. However, he deserves to remain in the side and I am not sure signing Williams is the correct use of limited funds we have.
Maguire 7.5/10 – Really solid game where he often had no one to make as Hartlepool for the first half played only 1 man up front and he often dropped back into midfield too! He had lots of time to control balls that came to him and for the most part showed a nice range of short and long passes (a few over hit long ones not withstanding). Came out of defence a few times too advancing forward into the opposition half. Seems to have got back to the standards of early season. Just hope we don’t burn him out as to play every game in your first full season at 18 is a lot to ask. Maybe worth resting him next Saturday (Ertl could play there or Jean Francois?).
Collins 7/10 – Another efficient game. He had a far easier game than the Notts County one against a less ambitious side and a poorer one who defended from the start. He did what he had to well winning headers and making clearances. He really is having an excellent season and is the leading candidate for player of the season. I did not think I would ever say that but he is sticking two fingers up to me and many critics who had written him off at the end of last season.
Doyle 8/10 – Excellent performance. He barely did anything wrong all game and he was very effective in everything he did. Broke up the play, won headers and seemed to also win every tackle he went for. His play on the ball was sensible and assured always finding a red and white shirt and seemed to completely control the midfield. Like Collins he had come back superbly to be a key part of the side. At the moment he is probably one of the first names on the team sheet.
McDonald 7/10 – Another good performance where he was very good in the first half when we won the game. Used the ball short and long and showed an impressive range of passing with some superb diagonal balls being sprayed about. Has an excellent first touch and seems to make an extra yard when others around seem to panic. He had improved slightly in recent weeks in terms of stamina and fitness and seems to be doing some of the ugly stuff a bit more. Hopefully he can get fitter and stronger and then we would have a real player on our hands. Worryingly he is out of contract at the end of the season and this needs to be addressed sooner rather than later for me as with his age and ability he could be a key player for years to come.
Flynn 7.510 – Another impressive display where he showed some nice things with the ball such as the well taken shot again, some nice pieces of link play and some very good corners. He also worked very hard off the ball and I recall one or two excellent moments where he chased back and won tackles or harried opponents into mistakes. Has quietly improved since an ineffective start to his Blades career. Should remain in the side making Quinn have to force his way back into the team.
Williamson 7/10 – Some good touches and crosses into the box. He was not always involved in the game but when he was he was very effective in his use of the ball. Some smart early passes into the forwards feet and some clever reverse balls. Allowed Lowton to go on many runs forward and as he has a lot of the season covered well in behind. Not as effective after the break but the game was won and you could say the same for a lot of them.
Evans 8/10 – Scored one goal and could have had 2 or 3 more but for good saves. He linked well with the likes of Lowton, Williamson and McDonald in general play and his first touch and control was very good. More than any of his skill though (a few superb lung busting runs that beat men could have led to goals to him or others) was his work rate. He never stopped all game and made the defenders have a very difficult time.
Porter 7/10 – Scored a well taken goal and won quite a few headers. Linked well with Evans in the first half. Missed a sitter in the second half right in front of goal. Overall he did ok but still seems slow to the ball at times and often lets his man get in front of him too much for me. Also, still has an annoying habit of being caught offside too much; especially for an experienced striker. Maybe has been like this his whole career but it is still poor when he can often just hold his run or look across the line. Not sure he is the answer long term whether Evans stays or not and he is one of the signings that has not really come off – to be fair Wilson has done quite well with Francois, McDonald and Flynn.
Ertl – Brought on at right back and did ok. A few poor misplaced passes but overall faced with little pressure he defended well if not offering the same threat going forward as Lowton. A useful man to have around when he can play 3 or 4 different positions.
Beattie – Came on and looked to link with Evans at every opportunity. A few bits of interchange came off whilst a few others did not. He did ok and showed his aerial ability and strength with a few flick ons and hold ups. Clearly needs games/match fitness though and I would start him next Saturday in the Cup game.
Montgomery – Brought on for McDonald right at the end. Going to struggle to get back in the team on the performances of the current midfield duo.
Officials – It was an easy game to referee really with only a few tackles of note. The first booking from Mr Sutton was right for the foul on Evans but I felt the one for the lad for fouling McDonald was a bit harsh as they both went in committed and was not really a bad foul nor deserving of a booking. The rest of the game went with little incident of note. I cannot recall many bad decisions really nor anything controversial.
Crowd/Atmosphere – Thought it lacked the atmosphere of the other day. It was another excellent crowd in terms of numbers topping 20,000 but it lacked the noise and fizz of the Notts County game. In some ways the early goals killed things in a strange sort of way and thus with the game being pretty much over it was quite flat really. Credit to Hartlepool’s fans. They only brought around 3-400 fans but they sang loud and proud all game and were very much behind their side throughout. They had a dig at the lack of noise from the home fans but it is often like that when a game is effectively over and even though we were winning it was a bit flat.