Over the past eight seasons only two teams who have been top of the Championship at Christmas have failed to achieve promotion to the Premier League. The current league leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers maintained their seven-point gap at the summit yesterday, once again demonstrating the resilient qualities required to last the pace and avoid such an unwanted fate this season, despite almost gifting Sheffield United victory twice in the final 10 minutes.
"I've no complaints about the result, they were the better team," said the Wolves manager, Mick McCarthy, who, ever the pragmatist, recently banned any public talk of the top flight from his players. This gritty and thoroughly entertaining draw against opponents with play-off aspirations of their own was the first time this campaign that Wolves had scored first in the league and then failed to win. Indeed, it could have been so different had James Beattie taken one of the two excellent opportunities surprisingly presented to him by sloppy Wolves defending towards the end. "It's one of those rare times when a team has played better than us. It hasn't happen too often, though," McCarthy added.
As he would undoubtedly appreciate, however, having achieved Premier League promotion with Sunderland three years ago, the importance of having strength in depth cannot be overestimated. Having scored against Doncaster last Saturday, when he was a last-minute call-up to the team, Neill Collins cemented his defensive position yesterday by heading Wolves in front. Michael Kightly whipped in a corner from the right and the Scot beat Ugo Ehiogu to the ball to score from six yards.
But, like Wolves, United are a committed team and, thanks to the energy of Beattie, and the industry of Nathan Dyer on the right wing and the impressive Stephen Quinn in midfield, they were only behind for three minutes. Much-coveted full-back Kyle Naughton delivered the ball from the right and after goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey spilled the cross, there was Beattie standing in the right position, on the edge of the six-yard box, to profit from the mistake. For the former England striker, who passed a last-minute fitness test on a calf problem, it was his 12th goal of the season.
Beattie could have added to that total on 80 minutes when Hennessey hesitated to collect a long ball over his back four, only to slip his shot through the keeper's legs and then wide of the post, while Collins was grateful that his error by the corner flag with two minutes left was not punished.
Kevin Blackwell, the Sheffield United manager, certainly agreed with McCarthy's post-match assessment that Wolves were fortunate, as his side stretched their unbeaten away run to seven games. "It's so frustrating," he said. "It was a fantastic performance from us. Hopefully, if we play like that, when we are not doing so well, later on in the season, we will get our rewards."
Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-4-2): Hennessey; Foley, Stearman, N Collins, S Ward (Mancienne, 53); Kightly, Henry, D Edwards, Jarvis (Vokes, 80); Ebanks-Blake (Keogh, 59), Iwelumo. Substitutes not used: Ikeme (gk), D Jones.
Sheffield United (4-1-4-1): Bennett; Naughton, Morgan, Ehiogu (Naysmith, h-t), Kilgallon; Quinn, Dyer, Montgomery, Howard; Webber (Cotterill, 86), Beattie. Substitutes not used: Halford, Stokes, Sharp.
Referee: T Bates (Staffordshire).Reuse content