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Wadley's Verdict: Cherries 0 Sheffield United 1
BEAUTY is in the eye of the beholder.
For Danny Wilson and 1,177 hardy souls from the north, this must have been a sight to rival Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez and Anne Hathaway.
But for the majority of spectators packed inside Dean Court, it was what it was: A ruthless, efficient example in how to win ugly away from home.
The fact a seemingly innocuous off-the-ball clash later emerged as a major incident perhaps spoke volumes for the scarcity of the talking points.
While the difficult, sandy state of the pitch and questionable standard of refereeing did little for the game, it was Sheffield United’s nous, work-rate and fine defending which killed the contest.
Despite dictating possession, trying to play passing football and showing a big improvement from their Preston off-day, not much hit the target for Cherries.
But Eunan O’Kane’s post-match assessment arrowed straight into the bullseye.
“I think I would have been a little bit disappointed if I had travelled from Sheffield to watch that,” said the recalled midfielder.
“They will go home happy because they have got three points but, in terms of a great spectacle for football and for the league, I don’t think it is a DVD you will be pulling out to show to anyone in years to come.”
Blades boss Wilson gave a slightly different account.
“It is not just about the physicality, it is between your ears,” said Wilson, having guided his team to the League One summit.
“They were clever enough to understand what would cause Bournemouth problems, both in and out of possession. The team played terrifically well.”
And although displays like this will win the Blades few marks for artistic merit, they could prove crucial when the points get counted come April.
Unexciting yet uncompromising and unwavering, the Bramall Lane outfit looked big and strong and they executed their game-plan without fail.
With plenty on the line for the promotion contenders, a sense of occasion was in the air, cutting through the biting cold as fans arrived at the ground.
But, barring a fast and furious opening 10 minutes which really captured the imagination, the high-profile showdown did not live up to its billing.
Cherries controlled possession and looked neat and tidy but there was no way through the resilient, well-organised team from the Steel City.
For the neutral, worst fears were realised when the visitors took a 20th-minute lead, allowing them to sit in and protect their slender advantage.
After Barry Robson had rattled Shwan Jalal’s crossbar with a dipping volley, Lewis Grabban was brilliantly denied by keeper George Long following fine work by O’Kane.
It then took an exceptional block from Blades skipper Michael Doyle to prevent Harry Arter’s ferocious drive from putting Cherries in front.
But that was as good as it got in terms of goalmouth action.
Sheffield United shut up shop as soon as Jamie Murphy had seized on a costly slip from Brighton loan man Marcos Painter, clinically lashing a rebound beyond Jalal, having seen his initial drive cannon back off the woodwork.
Brett Pitman looked the man most likely for Cherries as he sought room to manoeuvre by dropping deep into pockets of space.
But packing the midfield behind altruistic lone frontman Dave Kitson, the Blades pressed and harassed Cherries.
Former Celtic man Robson sat on Arter and O’Kane in a bid to halt attacks at source and if Cherries did slice through, they encountered man mountain cen tre-half Harry Maguire.
Painter was subbed at the interval with Matt Ritchie reverting to left-back and Josh McQuoid arriving on the flank.
Cherries were better for the change and continued to prompt and probe but, as boss Eddie Howe admitted afterwards, it proved a rare off day for his flair players.
Howe also highlighted the “game management” of the Blades, adding: “They are a strong, physical, experienced team who, individually, I would say have been in this position many times.”
As if United’s know-how and tactics had not provided enough frustration, referee Sutton often left players and fans baffled and angered in equal measure. Abuse rained down from the stands and arguments erupted on the pitch over the stop-start nature of the contest.
Fractious, ill-tempered and needlessly niggly in the end, it all boiled over when Pitman and Blades defender Neill Collins clashed off the ball.
Pitman hit the deck holding his face after Collins had appeared to block his path with his shoulder in full view of the well-placed Sutton.
The referee deemed no action necessary, with Wilson later accusing Pitman of “feigning injury” in a bid to get Collins dismissed, while the Cherries striker responded by questioning the conduct of Blades captain Doyle.
Video footage emerged on the Internet and fingers of blame were soon pointed in all directions.
The ugly incident summed up much of the match. It was the beautiful game... but only for those wearing white.
Cherries: (4-4-2) Jalal 6; Francis 6, Cook 7, Seaborne 5.5, Painter 4.5 (McQuoid, h-t, 6); Ritchie 6, Arter 5, O’Kane 6.5, Pugh 5; Grabban 5 (Tubbs, 73), Pitman 5.5 (Fraser, 68). Unused subs: Hughes, Fogden, MacDonald, Allsop (g/k).
Booked: Grabban, Arter.
Blades: (4-4-2) Long; McMahon, Maguire, Collins, Higginbotham; Robson (Poleon, 84), 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).
Echo star man - Steve Cook
In a game dominated by defences, Cook was a solid presence at the heart of Cherries’ backline.
Wearing the armband in Tommy Elphick’s absence, he helped ensure it proved a largely quiet afternoon for goalkeeper Shwan Jalal.
Cook was Cherries’ best performer on a rare day when the team’s big attacking guns failed to fire.
Midfielder Eunan O’Kane created Cherries’ most presentable opportunity in a clash starved of goalmouth action.
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