Sheffield United picked up a huge three points in the battle for promotion as they saw off a tough, organised and very physical Preston North End side at Bramall Lane yesterday.

Despite missing a penalty and falling behind against the run of play, United were able to recover and level through Ched Evans. The Welsh striker then smashed in the winner seven minutes from time to give the Blades a 5 point cushion in the automatic promotion places.

The Blades came into the game knowing local rivals Wednesday had lost yet again in an early kick off and thus had a huge opportunity to widen the gap between the two sides. They named an unchanged side but changed the bench with different options for manager Wilson in the form of Beattie and Williamson instead of Porter and Williams.

The game began with Preston clearly lining up with a 4-5-1 formation and has 2 players playing directly in front of the two centre backs which meant at times they had 6 defenders. The physical play associated with Graham Westley’s sides did not take long to come to the fore as a very late and wild lunge by Marrow on Doyle that saw a yellow card after just three minutes. The game was scrappy in the early stages and whilst McDonald tried to get on the ball it was just not happening for United and with Preston squeezing the midfield and restricting time on the ball they were few clear cut chances.

A chance did come when from a Flynn corner Francois met it on the full but headed just over when he ought to have done better. Flynn was influential in the early stages and he and Lowton were looking to link up at every opportunity. Preston had one lone striker Cummins who was at times overly physical in his attempt to win the long balls punted forward in his direction. A number of niggly fouls prevented the game from having any flow and the referee was struggling to prevent Preston’s gamesmanship and clear timewasting from an early stage.

United suffered a blow when on 25 minutes McDonald pulled up under no pressure and immediately knew he had to come off due to the injury. It appeared to be a hamstring injury. Montgomery came on in his place.

The Blades had a great chance to take the lead not long after when Lowton played a long ball forward and Evans touched it past Brown and got the other side of him. The defender clearly pulled him back and eventually Evans did go to ground after he tried to carry on at first. There was little doubt over the award and even the defender did not really protest. The striker took the spot kick but bizarrely for a man with such a ferocious shot his effort was awful as he tamely rolled the ball into Stuckmann’s hands. It was a comfortable save for the German keeper. Soon after Cresswell was in but his shot was saved by the legs of the keeper after some neat build up lead to the chance.

These missed opportunities were compounded when not long after the visitors took a shock lead with their first real attack. A through ball ought to have been Simonsen’s but United had to then put it behind after he did not come. The corner from the left hand side was played over and was never properly cleared. Hunt had too much time and space after the ball was played back to him to clip in an inviting cross that CUMMINS won looping his header up and beyond Simonsen. It was a well-made goal but a disappointing one to concede.

United had to respond and they nearly did as a rare neat spell of football led to Montgomery and Lowton combining and the former rolled the ball across the box but Flynn’s effort spooned over the bar when he really ought to have scored. However, the Blades were level not long after this. Maguire played the ball forward, Cresswell nodded down to Quinn who played a through ball into the path of the advancing Flynn but his effort deflected off a defender and span away from the defender and keeper. EVANS was the first to react and poked the ball home from the angle.

Preston were committing a number of fouls and Cummins was finally booked after a number of indiscretions. Just before the break a cross came in and Flynn’s looping header was tipped over by the keeper. The referee strangely did not even allow the ball to come back in play and blew for half time before the corner could be taken despite United waiting for a defender to retreat 10 yard before they took it!

The second half began in the same way as the first with a number of Preston fouls delaying any momentum that United could create. It was becoming a frustrating afternoon as Preston were well organised and did everything they could to stop United getting any clear cut chances. Evans did have a chance but fired over under pressure. Preston were seemingly disinterested in mounting any kind of attack and were happy for the game to become somewhat of a scrap. McLaughlin replaced Nicholson for Preston giving them an even bigger line up with barely any of their players being under 6 foot!

Doyle tried to strike an effort but miskicked and a further flurry of fouls stopped United from getting any really meaningful efforts on goal. Lowton came inside and had a shot after a promising run but it was blocked by Robertson; a player who had begun his career as a Blade in the Academy. Preston had a rare opening but Barton shot wide. Collins was having a commanding game in the heart of the Blades defence.

United opted to make a change with Williamson replacing Flynn and going wide right. He got on the ball and nearly made a chance for Evans. The minutes were now ticking away and the Blades had enjoyed nearly all of the possession but unfortunately had not been able to properly test Stuckmann.

Beattie came on for the tiring Cresswell as United tried to have one last push whilst Douglas came on for the lone striker Cummins with the departing striker giving a sarcastic wave to the Bramall Lane crowd who jeered his slow trot off the pitch.

With just under 10 minutes to go United nearly had the vital breakthrough but a combination of great goalkeeping, defending and good luck kept the Preston goal intact. A corner from the right was not properly cleared and bounced up for Lowton to head towards the top corner. Stuckmann managed to get across and keep the ball out via his own bar to deny the youngster. The ball bounced down and Beattie bravely nodded goalwards but Brown did brilliantly to head over from his own goal line. United players and fans alike held their heads but the anguish turned to joy within moments. The corner came over and again the ball was not properly cleared. The ball fell to EVANS who despite a number of bodies and the keeper being in front of him smashed the ball into the roof of net. It was a huge goal and you could tell by the reaction inside the Lane how important it could be.

Murphy came on for Marrow as Preston tried to now get the ball forward quicker after previously been quite happy not to advance into the Blades half. Collins and Maguire had been superb so far and continued to head and clear the ball. Preston did not create anything as the game entered 4 minutes of stoppage time; many of which were probably added on for their own cynical timewasting! In the additional time Beattie cleverly won a free kick and United managed to keep the ball well, with a spell in the corner seemingly winding up manager Westley even more! The final whistle came soon after and United could celebrate another win and a week eve their fans could not have imagines with 3 wins for them and 3 defeats for rivals Wednesday.

United – This was by no means one of our better performances and lacked much of the fluidity of recent times. However the fact we kept at it and scrapped our way to a vital three points says a lot. It was the sort of win that is vital in a promotion season and could be crucial at the end of the season. Whilst our local rivals seem to be bottling the pressure we are handling things very well. Today we had numerous setbacks with the main creative player McDonald being injured, us missing a penalty and then going behind. We stuck at it and got level and despite not creating much we were always in the ascendancy and did deserve our win. I did not feel we would score and after the two efforts just before somehow failed to go in, it seemed like it would only be a draw. I actually said at the time that it would not be a disaster and the main thing was not to chuck away a goal late on and lose. To get the winner was crucial and completed another fine day in terms of results. We can now go to Hillsborough and play with confidence, knowing if they fail to beat us that we are in a commanding position. Win and maybe even I will start to believe!

Today was an odd one as Preston came and were tough, organised and also plain dirty. The game became so scrappy and it meant chances were few and far between. We also struggled to get into the last third due to them completely packing the midfield and the area just in front of the defence. It was probably the least amount of chances we have created in a game for a long time but then they created nothing (outside of goal) too. It was just a battle and we tried to play football but at times the poor bobbly pitch and the physical play and pressing of PNE combined to make it really hard going. It was a game that looked destined for a draw and one that was very frustrating to watch. The importance of the late goal cannot be under estimated in terms of the points and also confidence it will give the team to gut out results.

We missed McDonald when he went off and the passing influence he has is clearly felt when we have Montgomery and Doyle in the middle of the park. I thought today we had a few players, Cresswell and Quinn who could do a bit more for me but once again the stand out players were Evans and Lowton from an attacking point of view and the defence were excellent. Collins in particular was superb and along with Ched is the favourite for the player of the season at this stage.

We now have the big one next week. Probably the most important derby since the Cup Semi Final in 1993. Win this and we have a great chance of automatic promotion. Even a draw is a decent result. The pressure is all on Wednesday and their manager. If they lose this game I would not be surprised if Mandaric sacked our friend Mr Megson. I am surprised they seem to be completely bottling it at the moment (long way to go of course) as for all our criticism of him (more his comments and antics in the press than for his management I feel) he is an experience manager who has took teams up. He seems to be struggling with the weight of expectation and they simply seem to be falling apart. Still if they beat us next week they will feel the season is back alive. If we can win there and then beat Scunny a few days after we have one foot back in the Championship (would be 11 points clear; like 12 with the goal difference; and have a game in hand – that would mean we would have to lose at least 4 probably 5 and Weds then to win every game. Say Weds lost just 1 or 2 more before the end of the season; then in affect we would have to lose say around 6 or 7 to not go up which you would think unlikely). Next week is huge and whilst defeat for us would not be disastrous for us, it would be for them and I think would probably resign them to the playoffs. Saying that I think we play to win and not draw. They are so vulnerable and lacking in confidence.


Preston– They certainly had a poor start to the season. They lost a lot of players and really struggled earlier in the season and were nearer the bottom than the top. Like us they have had to cut costs dramatically and in came rent-a-chairman Peter Risdale. Phil Brown was of course quickly jettisoned. Graham Westley’s approach at Stevanage was fairly no nonsense. They (Stevenage) had/have a big, physical side that rely on being very fit and getting stuck in and get the ball forward early at every opportunity. Despite their awful start and having a lot of injuries and never really having a settled side; they still are right on the cusp of the playoffs.

Westley’s teams are horrible to watch but mightily effective and it would not surprise me if they sneaked in the playoffs. They would have got a draw or even beaten a lot of teams on that performance today. They did not have many chances (did they have any apart from the goal really?) but they stood up to the test, compressed the play and made things very narrow. They stopped us getting the ball in dangerous areas and gave us no time on the ball.

At times they were reminiscent of a rugby side and ended the game with all eleven seemingly all 6 footers. I knew at the start when the teams shook hands and you saw how big they were that it was going to be a mightily tough game and so it proved. They really were physical and closed us down at every opportunity. If we ever went past them they usually tripped us up/fouled us. The big centre forward played up on his own and took his goal well but he was filthy all game and committed at least 10 fouls before he was finally booked. His reaction to all 4 sides of the ground when he was subbed was a bit pathetic as he responded to the jeers by putting thumbs up the Kop and clapping them. The keeper was not much better gesticulating to the United fans after they scored and was glad when the ball flew past his earhole into the net at the end!

To be fair they did what they had to and frustrated us as my comments above prove and the manager is trying to make sure they are not a soft touch as they have been before and in that regard it is working. Still does not mean it is pretty to watch and not sure the PNE fans will be happy watching that for the foreseeable future. I suppose if they win they will not care and they nearly got what they wanted today; a point.

Westley seems obsessed with fitness and physicality when you listen to him. You can see why he was effective with Stevenage and his teams remind me of Wimbledon a lot. His behaviour on the sideline was to be frank totally embarrassing. His pre match comments about how scared we would be of them started it off for me but watching him in the technical area really was head shaking. He was prancing about, waving his arms around, wanting every decision. He was ranting and raving, shouting at the fourth official all the time and basically behaving totally unprofessionally. The referee had a word with him once but how he did not get sent to the stands was beyond me. Twice he was on the pitch in the middle of the game. I tried not to look at him but it was hard not to. Maybe he does it for affect to take attention off how awful his teams are to watch! He reminded me of Neil Warnock and you can see why so many opposition fans hated him. Wilson did well to keep his calm. His assistants were no better with Dino Maamria and John Dreyer continually jumping up and down and continually remonstrating. I thought only one person was allowed to be in the technical area?



Simonsen 6/10 – Probably harsh to mark him low and maybe it was just me but I felt he has to take some blame for the goal they scored. He should have come for a long ball over the top but stayed on his line when it was an easy claim. This led to a corner and the goal came straight after. He had no chance with the header and had little else to do in the game. His distribution was poor and at least three times he put men under pressure with his throws out which were often ill advised.

Lowton 7.5/10 – Once again one of our best attacking threats. Always looked to get down the wing and support the play and got deep into Preston territory a number of times. His crossing was mixed and quite a few failed to beat the first man but he continued to keep getting into dangerous areas. Defended ok against little in terms of direct opposition. Unlucky not to score with a well-directed header that the keeper touched onto the bar just before we scored.

Francois 7.5/10 – Did not do a lot wrong today and after the Birmingham debacle has returned to good form and deservedly keeping his place ahead of Williams. He defended confidently with his tackling and blocks and stopped many crosses going in. He also was strong in the air and tried to get forward to support when he could. He had a few runs down the left and was unfortunate in a few moves in the first half. Had a good chance to score too with a header from a corner but put it over.

Maguire 7.5 /10 – Thought he was very good today and alongside Collins this was probably the strongest part of the team. Read the game well and made a number of interceptions and tackles. He won headers and remained strong. He has had a series of good games now and has settled down after a shaky spell in the mid-point of the season. The one criticism I will have is for the goal when he did not get there nor put a challenge in that may have put off the striker who headed in. It was a good goal but Maguire will have been disappointed with it. The rest of his performance was very good and we looked really strong in the centre of the defence.

Collins 8/10 – My man of the match. He was faultless and ensured other than the goal the defence was never breached. He won lots of headers and was calm under pressure always looking to play it out or find a man. A much better footballer than I ever thought he was and actually has a nice touch and technique for a centre back. When he first came to United I thought he was just a clogger. He is certainly not that. Has had an excellent season. Another tough test next week against another physical side.

Doyle 7/10 – Difficult game with the ball flying around all over and the opposition burying us all the time but Doyle did see a lot of the ball and was able to help us win it back quite a bit. He kept going and was often the one still breaking up the play and trying to get on the ball, especially after McDonald went off. When he and Montgomery were both on you could see who was the better player at the moment as they both do similar things but Doyle can pass the ball better. At times his distribution was mixed today and I remember a few times he put his arm up to acknowledge he had played a pass too short or long. However, he never hides and like Collins and has had a good season and helped banish his poor showing last season. Think he too will be very important next week in a scrap as I expect it to be.

McDonald – Was the one player again getting on the ball and trying to move it side to side. Lovely touch and technique again and at times he was the one who against a physical side who were trying to make the game scruffy, that could just take a touch and make space. He brought that calmness you need in a game like that. Big blow when he pulled up. It was clearly a pull or strain but hopefully it won’t be a 3 or 4 week job as he was able to walk off (albeit in pain) and did not actually go down like he was shot (as some do when the hamstring goes). I am hoping him going off when he did means he may only miss maybe a week or so (big blow if he misses the Derby – but the bigger picture is the rest of the season) and be able to come back fine.

Flynn 7/10 – First half he looked one of our more dangerous players and seemed to be involved in a lot of the action. He had one or two good chances and also a lot of our attacks came down the right hand side. He will have been disappointed with the chance he missed when it seemed easier to score. He seems to be getting a bit stronger but at times he found it hard against some of the big players he was faced with. He faded after the break but I still thought it would be Quinn taken off rather than him as he was better than him I felt.

Quinn 5.5 /10 – Thought he was poor again and his form recently has been one of the few disappointing things in our performances. Does not seem to be getting as many assists or having many attempts on goal these days and his general play has been sub-standard. He was involved in the first goal when his pass to Flynn led to the subsequent deflection and Evans finish. He is often giving the ball away with passes that are too short. He needs to up his game (maybe play Flynn and Williamson and give him a bit of a kick up the backside?) as he clearly has the ability but his form in recent times has not been good.

Evans 8/10 – He was the best attacker on the field again. He worked hard, showed a decent touch and always looked to run the channels. Despite this, his penalty was one of the worst I have ever seen and was akin to a back pass. Of course he had made it though, with another surging run showing his surprising pace over a few years. He reacted well to score his first being alive to the possible chance and it was a real poacher’s goal. In the second half he held the ball up well and tried to create things but it was not quite happening for him or the team. That was until the goal when it was barely a half chance after a corner had not been cleared and he absolutely leathered it into the net. Unstoppable and no matter how many men they had around the line/6 yard box, it was never going any other place but the net. Keeping him in the window and hopefully subsequent events in the courtroom (is it March?) could be key to us going up.

Cresswell 6/10 – Think along with Quinn he has been one of the weak links in recent weeks. That may sound harsh and I will say they both have worked hard and contributed to the defensive elements of the game. He also works defenders around and that means they tire when we bring other forwards on and that part of the job should not be forgotten. However I am unsure what he is offering really in terms of a partner for Evans as he does not seem to be holding the ball up that much, is not winning many headers and does not really look a goal threat. Despite saying that he did set up the goal with a header in the build-up. He does offer us a lot for set plays against bigger sides like the ones we have faced/will face in this part of the season. Despite my comments I still would play him whilst we keep winning as clearly it is working. I think there will be plenty of chances for Beattie and Hoskins before the end of the season.

Subs

Montgomery 6/10 – Came on and you did see an instant drop off in the middle of the park. That is not to say he was particularly bad. He was just Monty! Won a few tackles and covered his usual amount of ground but his passing and touch was often quite poor. The pass to Williamson when he had ages to bring it down and play it but played it first time out of field as he fell over summed up his passing. He did plug away though and help protect the defence as Doyle ended up being the more offensive of the two. Not sure how it will work as a partnership if McDonald is out for an extended period of time. Yes we need scrappers at Hillsborough but of course if we play football like we can (and McDonald is vitally important to that) then we could really open them up.

Williamson – Came on and again showed he is a proper footballer with his touch and technique good. He tried to get on the ball and had a few runs down the right and also came inside and had an effort on goal near the end. Did think he made a bit of a difference not that Flynn had done particularly badly. Do like him a lot but still feel he lacks consistency and needs to just give an extra 20%. If he did that he would tear up this division week in, week out rather than just in the occasional games as he has shown at times this season.

Beattie – Pleased to see him back. I thought it would be Hoskins who came on to offer something different but then the dilemma Wilson had is that it was one less tall player for set plays (both ways) so in retrospect maybe it was the right move. He was involved in the build-up to the winner when his effort was cleared off the line. Nice to see him win a few free kicks and win headers (more than Cressy did a lot of the game sadly) at the death that helped kill it. He has not quite had the impact we hoped, albeit not played much, but get the feeling he could be an important player in the run in. If he could break his duck next week would be nice too!

Officials – Referee Mark Brown. Thought he was poor. He let Preston’s niggly, physical tactics almost completely ruin the game. What I did not like was the fact that he constantly let them time waste and commit cynical fouls but often only just had a word (other than the shocking tackle). He finally started booking more players as the game wore on.

Crowd/Atmosphere – Felt it was a bit nervy and the United players were probably calmer than many of the fans! It was quiet for long stretches of the game but then a bad decision or another foul would bring a flurry of noise. I hope in the coming weeks the noise levels can rise. The noise when the winner went in was very loud and you could tell what it meant. I remember when we have been promoted before and late winners at the Lane seemingly are always part of such seasons. Hopefully it is a good sign.

If we can win nearly all our home games till the end of the season we are in with a great chance so the crowd has a big part to play. A little disappointed with the crowd as I thought after the recent results we may get a few more casual fans. Of course Preston did not bring many fans. I hope we can push it to around 20,000+ for the run in. The crowd are now totally behind Wilson and clearly the job he has done is being recognised. He got a few chants today and acknowledged the Kop. Liked the quote in yesterday’s programme from Wilson, ‘I love the new chant about me which I first heard at Charlton, it’s brilliant but I have to say I've never been shy, I've always been an outgoing person!’