Football: Littlejohn forces the Blades up

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The Independent Online
Sheffield United . 2

Oldham Athletic . .0

SHEFFIELD UNITED are old hands at raising their game at the end of a season to move clear of the relegation trap-door. They still have much to do, but they made a start by lifting themselves decisively at the end of last night's match in which they looked second-best for long periods.

Oldham's troubles, however, are beginning to have a terminal feel to them. This defeat leaves them anchored at the foot of a Premier League in which they have won away only once all season, and they failed to score for the eighth time in nine matches.

United created far fewer chances, but the two they put away, undistinguished though they were, carried them clear of the danger zone for the time being. The first, by the substitute, John Gannon, was a scrappy header that mirrored so much of the play in a match plainly being contested by two of the division's struggling sides.

In first-half injury time Mitch Ward played a neat one-two with Jamie Hoyland before putting in a good cross to the far post, where three of his colleagues were waiting. Adrian Littlejohn's initial header was woeful, but it fell fortuitously to Gannon, whose equally clumsy attempt bobbled over the line.

It was the first time the Blades had shown any kind of cutting edge, while the more purposeful Oldham would have broken their duck had not Alan Kelly touched Ian Marshall's header against the crossbar for Paul Beesley - United's most impressive player - to scramble away.

The visitors had the best of the second half, too. Roger Palmer poked a good chance wide after Steve Redmond's chip spilled from Kelly's grasp, and Marshall should have converted an accurate cross from Neil Adams.

But, with 13 minutes left, and Oldham throwing men forward in search of the equaliser, United again demonstrated how adept they can be at the late surge when it matters most. Brian Deane raced for a through ball with Richard Jobson and held off the defender long enough to get the ball into the danger area. Craig Fleming hooked it off the line, but only as far as Littlejohn, who bundled in the goal that finally ended the Latics' hopes.

The Oldham manager, Joe Royle, whose side was without four first-choice players, had two reasons to regret Deane's contribution. It was the United striker's late challenge on Neil Pointon which had ended the defender's involvement in the first half. He left Bramall Lane on crutches for an X-ray which detected no fracture.

Royle said: 'We lost a vital defender and we are running out of players now. We created the better chances in this match. If we do start getting the breaks, I hope it is not another limb.'

The Sheffield United manager, Dave Bassett, said 'It was a typical relegation struggle and nobody expected too much good football, but we battled well to win it.'

Sheffield United: Kelly; Ward, Cowan, Hoyland, Gayle, Beesley, Bradshaw, Hartfield (Gannon, 24), Bryson, Deane, Littlejohn. Substitutes not used: Cork, Kite (gk).

Oldham Athletic: Gerrard; Fleming, Poynton (Palmer, 37), Henry, Jobson, Redmond, Adams, Moulden (Tolson, 78), Marshall, Milligan, Brennan. Substitute not used: Gray (gk).

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).