Sheffield United returned to winning ways at Bramall Lane after 3 games without a win at home as they saw off Milton Keynes Dons. In doing so they concluded a very respectable week by picking up 7 points from 9 from three difficult games. United are now back up to 4th place and are only three points off the automatic promotion places with another home game to come on Saturday.
United had been on the back foot in the early stages but took the lead thanks to a well made and taken Richard Cresswell strike and were in control for large periods of the first half. However, a Stephen Gleeson effort levelled matters and it seemed either side could on to win it before a lovely piece of skill from Billy Clarke set up fellow Blackpool loanee Matt Phillips to score from close range. After this United had a few close scares and although MK Dons lost Adam Smith to a second yellow card the visitors threw men forward but could not find another equaliser. It was a crucial three points for United who had lost previous games against high flyers Huddersfield and Charlton in recent weeks at the Lane.
Manager Danny Wilson had made the big call of replacing experienced but under fire stopper Steve Simonsen with 17 year old local lad George Long. United also brought back Richard Cresswell for the injured Chris Porter. Ryan Flynn was back on the bench. MK Dons were without Wednesday man Clinton Morrison, whose loan had ended but did include former Owl Darren Potter and another loanee from Hillsborough, Mark Beevers.
Long was given a great reception as he took his place in front of the Kop and was given good luck hugs from skipper Montgomery and fellow youngster Maguire. United began the game slowly and seemed second to the ball as MK showed a nice brand of one touch football. However, the Blades did have the first chances but Phillips cross was poor. Williams got forward well to support Quinn as United tried to get on top but MK Dons had began well themselves and had a half chance but Ibehre stabbed wide after a cross from the left hand side had not been dealt with.
Clarke came inside and had a low shot saved by Martin before a low shot from Gleeson was blocked. The visitors were playing the better football and seemed to be controlling the midfield but when Quinn sprinted clear full back Smith ran across him and was rightly cautioned. The free kick came to nothing and at the other end the dangerous Gleeson had another opportunity blocked. However despite MK Dons looking the more threatening it was United who took the lead and it came from an excellent move. The ball was won by Montgomery in the middle of the field and Quinn played the ball to Clarke who turned a first time ball across into the path of CRESSWELL who was in on goal. The veteran striker took a touch before smartly converting under Martin.
Buoyed by this the Blades had a very good spell and Quinn had an effort deflected away before Phillips had another effort that was blocked by Martin after good work by Quinn in the build up. Cresswell went into the book for a tackle when he went to floor but the same man was able to win a corner which Maguire headed just wide from McDonald’s deep delivery.
The second half saw appeals for a penalty for a challenge from Lewington on Cresswell but sloppy play from United and smart work by the Dons saw them level. There was arguably too much space afforded to a series of players but Bowditch and Ibehre linked well and the ball was transferred to GLEESON in the wide right position. There was little in the way of a challenge but it was an excellent low driven shot that gave Long little chance as it nestled into the corner. The ball was booted into the upper tier by an MK player but no caution was given remarkably!
Suddenly it was game on and United had to up their game once again. Williams was booked for dissent which aggrieved many fans after the previous incident after the equaliser. Evans came on for Cresswell and was immediately involved as Beevers tackled him ferociously winning the ball but also getting a fair portion of the man!
United were able to get back in front with just over 200 minutes remaining as the lively Clarke darted inside and past his man before drilling a great cross over that his fellow Blackpool man PHILLIPS stabbed home. It was another well made and taken goal.
The Dons made a triple substitution and went with a more attacking formation as Balanta, Powell and McDonald came on for Ibehre, Williams and Bowditch, whilst Flynn came on for Clarke. Evans had an effort blocked and then nearly found Quinn with a clever ball. Long had not been tested with his defence protecting him well but made a smart save low down from Balanta. The visitors were reduced to ten men when Smith cynically fetched down Flynn and was shown a second yellow card. However, despite the man advantage the Blades were now sitting deeper and becoming sloppy in possession. MK threw bodies forward and a series of long throws and balls from wide went into the box. Maguire won two headers and Powell had a shot blocked just before the board went up to signal an extra 5 minutes of play. Right at the death the visitors sent up keeper David Martin as they won a corner but in his attempts to win the header he barged Quinn over and this was pretty much the final act of the game as the referee finally blew for time almost 7 minutes into a supposed additional 5 to be played!
United – A much better performance than Saturday. We were not great but we deserved to win the game I felt. We began very slowly in the first half and were off the pace losing tackles and not getting tight enough but suddenly a couple of tackles from Montgomery and United seemed to lift themselves. They suddenly started to get at MK Dons and began to create things. They passed the ball well for a spell and had one or two half chances before a smartly taken goal that was set up beautifully by Quinn and Clarke and well taken by Cresswell. After this we played well and could have had a few more. We defended well and protected Long with Maguire having his best game for ages. We started to win first and second balls again and could have gone ahead by more than one at half time. Second half was the same as the first as we came out slowly and sat back and did not get tight enough to their players. They scored a decent but very avoidable goal as we gave up too much time in the middle of the field and then out wide as neither Williams nor Phillips got close enough to the goal scorer. However, we did manage to up it after the equaliser and were able to move up a gear again. It was frustrating that we had to wait till they scored to do this but once again Clarke was influential with another clever piece of skill setting up the second.
After this it was a mixed bag with some decent ball retention mixed with some wasteful, sloppy play. We seemed to panic the longer the game went on when some better balls would have led to more chances and more goals. With the game moving to the final stages we seemed to sit back and defend deeper and started to give the ball away. The sending off made no difference and the visitors were still penning us in. Despite them not creating many chances the balls were being sent into our box and you felt like it was inevitable we would make a mistake or they would get on the end of one; such was our inability to hold onto leads or not lose late goals. Even right into the 5th or 6th minute of stoppage time (he played 7 the same as the referee on Saturday!) you felt they might get one and it was a relief when he blew for time. Despite us picking up 8 points from 12 (and it should have been 12) the confidence still seems fragile and it feels like they know they have let in so many late goals that they almost expect it to happen.
The main issues I had tonight was two things. The first being fitness. Our players on the whole are not fit enough. I have watched us all season and most teams seem to go for longer and seem stronger as the games go on. Wednesday were one such team but there are others. Even on Saturday against Orient we were dead on our feet and it was the same tonight against ten men again! The likes of McDonald, Cresswell and Phillips (more of an excuse as he has not been playing regularly) all seem to blowing well before the end of games and seem shattered by the time the game reaches 60-65 minutes. This is really poor and needs addressing. The conditioning of our players does not seem poor and I feel we will continue to lost late goals until this improves as we often seem to have 2 or 3 players out of game even using all our allotted substitutes. The second issue was once again the ball retention; or lack of it. When we kept it we looked good and passed it well, creating chances with some clever balls from the likes of Quinn, Evans, Clarke and McDonald. However, all too often many players including some of those above tossed away sloppy balls or gave it away, even in our half. It was so sloppy at times and led to us having to win headers/clearances or being at full stretch.
There were lots of positives tonight in that when we did get it down and play we created some chances and looked positive. We tried to keep it on the floor and were able to move the ball from side to side. I felt we looked dangerous when we attacked and the likes of Clarke and then latterly Evans showed some clever touches and play. Clarke was the best player on the pitch and was very inventive but always coming off the front and receiving the ball. He looks a very cleaver player who does different things but an intelligent footballer who thinks about what he does. He would be a great player to keep for further than the month but I fear Blackpool will recall him. Long did well with what he had to and was well protected by the two centre halves. I felt Maguire got back to his early season standards. I also thought Montgomery had a really good, battling game and was all over the field at times.
In terms of the others; Phillips disappointed me a little and Cresswell despite his goal was still slow at times and did some daft things for an experienced striker. McDonald is a mixture of excellent to awful in the same spells. He is a very good passer of the ball but is so weak at times and very slow meaning other players run past him and means Monty often have to cover 2 or 3 men. I also thought Lowton was really poor and seems to be stuck in a bit of a rut at the moment. He probably needs a spell out of the side.
If we can improve our ball possession and not panic when we go ahead and try and keep going forward (not cavalier but sensible) we can score goals against most teams at this level with the players we have (granted 2 of them are loan players) then we can go on a run of games. The 2 centre backs set the standards tonight and with a keeper without the baggage of the late goals and mistakes hopefully we can start to have some clean sheets (been a while). Exeter is a game we should win and then we have a few other games both home and away we should take points from but our form has been very inconsistent and I fear we could dip at any moment. We do not look totally convincing and seem to sit back in games when we lead but at least there were some passages of good football tonight and it was a huge improvement on Saturday.
MK Dons – It was an odd performance as they were excellent for the first 10-15 minutes winning the first and second balls and also playing better football but then they had a really poor spell and Untied controlled the game from around the 15-20 minute mark and dominated this period of the game. After they went behind they did not respond and could have gone further behind. They began the second as they had started the first; on the front foot and got a well made and taken goal. However, they seemed to sit back after this and invite pressure once again which was strange as they proved they could knock it about and create things and I felt if they moved the ball and switched it from side to side they would cause United problems but they only did it for spells. When they did they looked a good side and clearly like to play football and have some underrated players. I can see why they have done well and taken some scalps in the League Cup. They play the right way and despite not having many ‘name’ players play as a unit and remain patient not going long. They did look weak defensively and with quicker players I felt they could be turned as proved and one or two smarter decisions and United could have scored a few more.
They have done tremendously well to come so far in such a short space of time and are clearly one of the better footballing sides in this league. Karl Robinson has done a tremendous job and looks a very promising manager. They have added experience in the likes of Morrison (granted he has gone back) and Chadwick and I do like the lad Gleeson in the centre of the park. He is a good footballer who is mobile and gets on the ball. He scored a very good goal. I like the lad Lewington who played left back; I think he is a good defender and gets up to support the attack too. Beavers won stuff in the air; sometimes by going through players but struggled with the nifty Clarke. I barely noticed Potter in the centre of the park and he did shirk one or two tasty challenges from Montgomery. The lad up front Ibehre was a handful but Maguire battled him well and won the battle. The 3 subs gave them a bit of a lift and they went more attacking with a more orthodox 4-4-2 ****il the red card). They had played with 1 up top supplanted by two wingers in the first half.
Long 7/10 – Pleased he got a start and although part of me felt it was too soon and I feared if he made a mistake he may crumble it was a decision (dropping Simonsen) that had to be made. I would have brought in another keeper on loan but fair play to Wilson; he had trust in the youngster and he made a promising start. His handling was fine with that he had to do and he made one smart save low down. He had no chance with the goal I felt as it seemed to go in the corner and was hit firmly. I liked the way he was always shouting and trying to talk to his defence which was good for someone so young and his distribution was good. He does have a good kick on him. He will stay in and keep the shirt. Hopefully tonight will give him confidence and he can stay in the side. We do have to realise that like Maguire he could and probably will make mistakes but Simonsen has made so many that we had to try something different.
Lowton 5/10 – Thought he was really poor tonight again. He was way off his man for most of the first half and gave him acres of space and time. He got beat a few times and let his man get too many crosses in. Second half this continued and although he did win a few tackles he was once again not close enough to the winger and also sloppy when in possession. He has not shown as much going forward in recent weeks but I do not care too much about this. His priority is to defend and at the moment he is falling way short of standards he has set previously and is capable of.
Williams 7/10 – I do like Williams and whilst like Lowton he was off his man a few times, he still is a player that looks comfortable at this level. He is neat and tidy on the ball, gets forward well and for the most part defends sensibly and with the minimum of fuss. Maybe on the goal he was too far off but you could argue that Gleeson as a central midfielder was not his man but maybe as it was in his area he should have moved over and got tighter.
Maguire 7.5/10 – His best game for a long time and maybe since the start of the season. Sure he played one or two lovely cross field balls and his passing and distribution was excellent but more than that he defended and defended well. He was strong and determined, particularly in the air and did not get outmuscled. Ibehre was a big and powerful striker who began the game well but Maguire stuck to his task and won the battle; so much so that the striker was taken off later in the game. Won a few key headers and blocks at the end when we needed to remain strong. A much improved performance.
Collins 7/10 – Did well but it was a strange game as for three quarters of it he had no one to mark as Maguire picked up the striker and they played with two wide men. He was able to pick up the scraps and win most of the headers and clearances and kept it nice and simple. Good to see him talking to Long for long periods of the game and helping him through the game. Nice to see a game where neither of the centre backs did not make an error that led to a goal. This has been a rarity in recent weeks.
McDonald 6.5/10 – A mixed game really. At times on the ball he was very good and was able to play some nice through balls or clever crosses. However he was very slow at times to the ball and once again often shies away from contact. He labours to get back when opponents break with the ball and often is out of the play when defending. He needs to get fitter, stronger and be more determined both defensively and attacking. He has lots of technical ability but does not assert himself enough. Frustrating as he is a lovely passer of the ball.
Montomgery 7.5/10 – Thought he was very good tonight and battled hard. Led by example as the captain and set the tone for our improvements when he won a series of tackles in the first half. He won a key challenge that led to the goal and then made sure we were able to start to control the midfield and pick up the loose balls. He played some decent balls and sensible balls tonight but also gave away a few daft ones (I remember one square ball that drifted out on the John St side – if it went out! – that was very sloppy). However, he was the man helping block and cover right at the end and threw his body in the way of at least two balls into our box.
Quinn 7/10 – Two or three really clever balls and a couple of excellent crosses. He also carried the ball well and had a few surging runs (the one at the end where he ran 60-70 yards showed his commitment to the cause). However he was sloppy at times too and I do think he drifted in and out of the game as he was moved from wing to wing to try and have more of an influence. I still do not think he is quite at the standards of earlier in the season but when he does good things he looks a class above at this level.
Phillips 6/10 – Like Saturday he was not that influential really and I thought he did not get on the ball enough and flagged for long periods. I did expect more of him after his impact at Deepdale but he has had two subpar games in the ones I have seen. Did a few nice flicks and runs but overall did not beat his man much and did not get many dangerous crosses in. He also does not track back much and left a lot of space for Williams in front of him which was evident on their goal. Did well to get into the box in front of his marker to convert the winner. Looked absolutely shattered by the end of the game and maybe should have been one of the players to come off. Needs to get much fitter and sharper.
Cresswell 6/10 – Took his goal very well with a nice touch and cool finish. He flicked the ball on and linked well on another few occasions but unfortunately looked behind the play a lot too and looked exhausted before the game even got to half time! Was booked for a stupid challenge and also has this annoying tendency to always go to floor when he tackles which means he will concede fouls most of the time even when they are not necessarily obvious fouls! Could have been sent off for continually arguing and haranguing the referee and was wisely taken off.
Clarke 8/10 – The best player on the pitch. Inventive, tricky, clever and fast. He came off the front, ran deep, got into pockets of space and linked well. Seemed ahead of most other players in what he did and was involved in both goals. The ball for the first may have seemed obvious but was done first time and at the right pace. The second was a great run and brilliant cross. He did numerous other good things and looks a real player. Shame we probably cannot keep him for longer. Came off as he was tired from all the running he did. Like to see him and Evans given a run together.
Evans – Came on and worked hard chasing down defenders but also played 2 excellent through balls into the path of Quinn and also Phillips. Strange he is not playing every week as I thought he had done well against Wednesday and also in other recent games he has started.
Flynn – Forgot he existed but he did really well in the brief time he was on. Drew the challenge for the red card and also held the ball cleverly in the corner several times at the end that helped kill the game off. Hopefully he realises if he gets a chance he has to take it.
Doyle – Brought on for McDonald for the final 10 minutes or so and whilst he did not touch the ball much he won a few tackles and interceptions as we looked to solidify the midfield.
Officials – Graham Salisbury. Thought he had a very poor game. He may not have given any major decisions that affected the result nor the goals but he was so inconsistent. He was at times maddeningly frustrating with free kicks wanting them taken from just the right spot but at other times he let both teams take them miles from the spot where the offence was. He gave some bizarre free kicks both ways, penalising Maguire and Montgomery for winning the ball on two incidents and then one of theirs down near the right wing as we attacked for winning the ball cleanly. He seemed to penalise 3 or 4 shoulder charges (they were barely that!) but then blatant shoves in the back of Cresswell were ignored. The red card was pretty obvious with two clear yellow cards really. You could argue that both offences were worse than yellow cards actually! The Doyle and Cresswell ones were daft tackles although the former stopped a breakaway I suppose. The most frustrating thing of the night was when MK Dons scored and a player booted the ball into the upper tier (blatant timewasting) and was not booked but when Williams kicked the ball away 5 yards he was booked. They also kicked it away a few other times but were not carded. It was really inconsistent refereeing and the sort of things that infuriates you as a spectator. Especially when the time wasting led to more minutes than should be played and could have been costly for the team that done nothing wrong!
Crowd/Atmosphere – Not the best of crowds, being just over 16,000+ but a wet, cold Tuesday night and the high ticket prices means punters wanting to turn up on the day for such a game is unlikely. Also MK Dons only brought maybe 200 or 300 fans really. It was dead much of the night and a really flat atmosphere until the end when the crowd came to life to try and surge United home as they defended late on. They gave Long a very good reaction when he came to them and seemed to really want him to do well. This seemed a key reason for the change listening to Wilson after the game as obviously there would have been negativity from the off if Simonsen had played.