Sheffield United had lost 4-0 at Wigan when these sides met in the Championship two seasons ago but this was a result less important for erasing that unpleasant memory than for reinforcing Neil Warnock's conviction that he does, after all, possess a team capable of surviving in the Premiership.
The squad Warnock has brought from the Championship still look short of the necessary quality and yesterday's result owed more to team spirit than finesse. Yet thanks to Rob Hulse's goal in first-half stoppage time, his fourth in all and first away from home since his £2.2 million summer move from Leeds, the Blades have taken 10 points from their last four matches to put daylight between themselves and the bottom three.
"It was a performance that epitomised the spirit of the club," Warnock said afterwards. "Apart from maybe Phil Jagielka and Paddy Kenny, you wouldn't find many people outside of Sheffield who could name any of our players yet they are in the Premiership and having a good go at staying there. They are a bunch of unsung heroes, really."
Yet Wigan may think they deserved to finish level, at least on the basis of their second-half performance, which tested the resilience of Warnock's side. As it is, the manager Paul Jewell must work out a way to solve a worrisome problem after four home matches without a goal, which is not going to help restore attendances at the JJB Stadium. The novelty of Premiership football has worn off to such an extent that average crowds are 3,000 down on last year.
"In the first half we were poor," Jewell said. "We had a go in the second half but you can't play for only 45 minutes at this level and expect to win games."
It might have been worse had the referee Peter Walton not taken his assistant's advice and reversed his decision to award a penalty to United after an hour. Walton believed Arjan de Zeeuw had handled the ball from a Keith Gillespie cross but television replays confirmed the linesman's view that the ball had struck the Wigan defender's thigh and even Warnock, seldom slow to give his opinion when decisions go against his team, signalled approval.
"If it had finished 1-1, I might not be saying this but if he had a doubt you have to applaud the referee for consulting his assistant because a lot would have stuck to their guns," he said.
The decisive goal gave a focal point to what had been a poor opening half. A couple of half-chances, one each to Danny Webber and Hulse, was the total output from both sides, so when Hulse turned Stephen Quinn's cross beyond the reach of Chris Kirkland, it probably surprised the visitors' end as much as it disappointed the Wigan fans.
Wigan improved in the second half with the introduction of the 19-year-old David Cotterill on the right and twice United were grateful to the shot-stopping ability of goalkeeper Kenny, who kept out Denny Landzaat and Kevin Kilbane, the latter failing to capitalise on a mistake by defender Rob Kozluk.
Kirkland then came to Wigan's rescue against Danny Webber before Kenny made a one-handed save to deny Lee McCulloch, who was lucky that the otherwise sharp eyes of referee Walton did not spot him throwing what appeared to be a punch - resulting in a black eye for the Blades' captain Chris Morgan - in the dying seconds.Reuse content