CHERRIES suffered their first home League One defeat since September as Jamie Murphy’s early goal earned Sheffield United a 1-0 win this afternoon.
Unbeaten in third-flight action at Dean Court since Eddie Howe’s return, Cherries saw that proud record ended by the resilient and well-organised Blades.
Barry Robson hit the crossbar for the visitors before Cherries duo Lewis Grabban and Harry Arter both came close in a blistering start to the promotion showdown.
But after Murphy had found the net from close range to give the Bramall Lane outfit a one-goal advantage, there proved no way back for Cherries as they were condemned to back-to-back losses.
Demonstrating the close nature of the division, the win lifted Sheffield United to the summit, while Cherries dropped to sixth.
Cherries boss Eddie Howe made one change following the 2-0 loss at Preston last time out, with Eunan O’Kane restored to central midfield in place on Shaun MacDonald, who dropped to the bench.
The Blades were unsurprisingly unchanged on the back of three successive wins and their vastly-experienced line-up included seasoned Premier League performers such as Danny Higginbotham and Dave Kitson.
With plenty on the line for the promotion rivals, the match burst into life at a furious pace.
Cherries’ defence was almost unlocked within three minutes courtesy of a route-one raid. Higginbotham’s aerial ball found Robson galloping into space via a Kitson flick-on and the former Celtic man reduced Shwan Jalal to a spectator as he crashed a dipping left-footer off the crossbar.
Relieved to escape the close call, Cherries’ response was immediate.
A surging run from the recalled O’Kane saw him scamper into enemy territory and when his clever pass teed up the onrushing Lewis Grabban, it took a solid parry from George Long to deny Cherries’ leading marksman.
Still on the front foot, Cherries were then denied after a trademark corner routine had baffled the Blades. After Brett Pitman’s drive had been blocked, Harry Arter latched on to the loose ball and launched a ferocious drive, only to see visiting skipper Michael Doyle produce a sensational goal-line clearance.
Higginbotham’s header forced Jalal into a diving save before Grabban was yellow carded amid growing frustrating from Cherries towards the decisions of referee Gary Sutton.
Those frustrations grew further when the Blades took a 20th-minute lead through Murphy, who profited from a Marcos Painter slip before lashing home the rebound after his initial close-range shot had hit the post.
Danny Wilson’s men then made life even more difficult for Cherries as the visitors packed the midfield and looked solid, hard working and strong.
Despite plenty of possession, Cherries found chances few and far between and lacked an incisive, cutting edge against the Blades.
A storming run by Arter late in the opening period was the closest they came, but he was crowded out just as he had shaped to shoot.
Brighton loan man Painter was taken off at half-time for the second match in a row, with Howe introducing Josh McQuoid and moving Matt Ritchie to left-back.
Cherries appeared better for the change and looked far brighter during the early skirmishes of the second half.
An exceptional Pitman pass split the Blades defence and almost landed perfectly for the onrushing Grabban, only for the frontman to be deceived by the bounce at a crucial moment.
As the fractious element of the contest continued, referee Sutton deemed no action necessary after Pitman had hit the deck in an off-the-ball incident involving Blades defender Neill Collins.
The mood of Cherries' players and supporters was not improved when the Lincolnshire official then waved away a vociferous – albeit ambitious looking – penalty claim after O’Kane’s cross had been blocked at close range.
With Cherries still struggling to find a way through, Ryan Fraser was called from the bench to make his Cherries debut as Pitman made way.
Matt Tubbs was then thrown on in place of Grabban as Howe put his faith in the new-look attacking duo of Tubbs and McQuoid, supported by wide men Pugh and Fraser.
Blades defender Harry Maguire, solid as a rock at centre-half, forced keeper Long into a nervous tip over the bar when he almost sliced a dangerous Ritchie cross into his own net.
And while McQuoid and Tubbs showed signs of sparking Cherries into life, Maguire’s slice was the only serious piece of work for Long as the Blades held on to win a hard-fought yet disappointing clash.
Cherries: (4-4-2) Jalal; Francis, Cook, Seaborne, Painter (McQuoid, h-t); Ritchie, Arter, O’Kane, Pugh; Grabban (Tubbs, 73), Pitman (Fraser, 68). Unused subs: Hughes, Fogden, MacDonald, Allsop (g/k).
Booked: Grabban, Arter
Blades: (4-4-2) Long; McMahon, Maguire, Collins, Higginbotham; Robson (Poleon, 85), Doyle, McDonald, Flynn; Kitson, Murphy. Unused subs: Westlake, Hill, Ironside, McFadzean, De Girolamo, Coyne (g/k).
Booked: Robson, Doyle
Referee: Gary Sutton (Lincolnshire)
Attendance: 8,497 (including 1,177 away supporters)