Che Adams scored the goal which saw Sheffield United record a much-needed win at at Doncaster Rovers this afternoon.
The result, achieved despite the absence of their leading marksman Billy Sharp, saw Nigel Adkins’ team climb to eighth in the League One table and move to within five points of sixth-placed Millwall.
United did not dominate the first-half but were comfortably the better team and finished it with a slender but deserved lead. Adams provided it with his eighth goal of the season and first in all competitions since October. But Jose Baxter’s role in the move should not be under-estimated as it was his perfectly-flighted pass which piereced the hosts’ defence and allowed the England youth international to turn home.
Rovers engineered some promising positions of their own but failed to demonstrate the attention to detail which would have made them count.
Indeed, United should have increased their lead with a little over a quarter-of-an-hour remaining following an excellent interchange between Louis Reed and Adams. On this occasion, however, Chris Neal intervened.
The visitors introduced some experience during the closing stages but many of those handed unexpected opportunities here certainly gave United’s coaching staff food for thought.
Both Adkins and Ferguson had earlier raised eyebrows with their selections for this pivotal game. The changes United made, which saw academy graduates Reed and Dominic Calvert-Lewin chosen ahead of more senior professionals, were in part designed to plot a course through this and forthcoming games against Bury and Port Vale. Ferguson, meanwhile, was clearly intent on trying to grab proceedings by the scruff of the neck.
It was United, however, who made the more positive opening with Baxter instrumental in both of the early chances they enjoyed. First, the former Everton midfielder saw a shot palmed away to safety by Neal before, in the fifth minute, the Rovers goalkeeper tipped Neill Collins’ header onto the crossbar. Baxter took the corner.
The hosts attempted to gnaw away at United’s understandable brittle confidence with Andy Williams nearly ghosting into position ahead of George Long but, midway through the opening period, it was Adkins’ charges who went close again when Calvert-Lewin found the side-netting from a John Brayford cross.
Reed blazed high and wide after a mature piece of play from Calvert-Lewin and then Jamal Campbell-Ryce was rewarded with a corner.
The breakthrough eventually came three minutes before half-time when Adams handed United a deserved lead. The youngster wrestled his way past Andy Butler and prodded a first time shot past the advancing Neal. The pass from Baxter which created the chance, though, was more memorable than the finish.
Collins made his presence felt in the Rovers’ penalty area again when, soon after the re-start, he saw Neal pluck the ball out of the air as is threatened to sneak home.
The introduction of Craig Alcock facilitated another change of shape for Rovers and the full-back nearly levelled against his former club after driving a low centre across Long from the touchline. Williams ghosted in front of Collins but miscalculated his angles as Rovers pressed while Baxter flashed high and wide on the cusp of added time.
Doncaster Rovers: Neal, Evina, McCullough, Butler (Alcock 46), Gooch (Mandeville 62), Williams, Tyson, Keegan, Taylor-Sinclair, Stewart (Chaplow 76), Middleton. Not used: Lund, Lecygne, Stuckmann, Davies.
Sheffield United: Long, Brayford, Baxter, Collins, McEveley, Campbell-Ryce (Flynn 74, Reed (Basham 83), Calvert-Lewin (Woolford 86), Adams, Edgar, Hammond. Not used: Howard, Coutts, Done, Sammon.
Referee: Mike Dean (The Wirral).