Alan Browne’s ninth goal of the season kept the Play-Off race going to the final game of the 2017/18 season as the Lilywhites picked up only their second league win at Bramall Lane in 40 years.
The Irishman showed real desire to be first to the ball and slot home from eight yards out after Josh Harrop’s 25-yard strike had been pushed away by Blades keeper Jamal Blackman.
The win put Alex Neil’s men two points behind Derby County, ahead of the final weekend of the season, where the Lilywhites entertain Burton Albion and the Rams face Barnsley, both opposing sides needing to win their final games to avoid relegation.
The North End gaffer said after the game that it hadn’t been his side’s prettiest performance of the campaign, but that was irrelevant as they picked up the three vital points on their third visit to Sheffield this season.
Harrop was one of three changes to the side that drew with Norwich the previous week, with Ben Davies and Sean Maguire also coming into the starting XI, with Paul Huntington recovering from his hamstring problem to partner Davies – Tom Clarke fit enough for a place on the bench.
The visitors started the game brightly and had the first real chance on 15 minutes when Callum Robinson broke into a left hand channel and then into the box, checking back to shoot, only for Lee Evans to make a fine block at the striker’s feet – the No.37 playing as one of a front two alongside Maguire.
However, it was Chris Wilder’s team who had the better of the rest of the opening period. Former North End loanee Leon Clarke had a shot blocked by Paul Huntington after a ricochet in the box presented the United No.9 with a chance to shoot 12 yards out and then am excellent block at point blank range by Declan Rudd to also denied Clarke, who had bustled his way through the tackles to the edge of the six yard box.
Right on the interval a vital moment came as Greg Cunningham – superb on the afternoon, wearing the captain’s armband and leading by example – made a stunning header to deny John Fleck, with an effort that looked destined for the top corner from 15 yards until the full back’s intervention.
But after the break the opening quarter of an hour were key to the outcome of the game and saw PNE at their best.
Five minutes in a Maguire cross-cum-shot into box beat Blackman and seemed destined for the net, until Chris Basham cleared from a yard off the line.
But on 57 minutes the winning goal came. Harrop picked up the ball 25 yards out to the left of the goal and fired a powerful goalbound effort that Blackman could only push out. Two Blades defenders and Browne burst towards it and to start with the No.8 looked second favourite, but he bust a gut to reach the ball first and slot home from close range to send the 1,610 behind the goal into raptures.
After the goal there were changes made by Alex Neil, with Paul Gallagher, Tom Clarke and Tom Barkhuizen introduced and three of them all combined to almost bring a second.
Gallagher’s free kick from 40 yards out was whipped in with real pace; it was flicked on by Huntington to Barkhuizen at the back post, who headed back across goal to where Clarke nodded home from close range.
The assistant’s flag went up, however, and the goal was disallowed, although post-match video evidence gave no apparent reason why as Barkhuizen had been onside and headed the ball backwards for Clarke, so he could not have been offside – a strange decision, which thankfully did not prove important come the final whistle.
United were lucky not to end the game with ten men, when skipper Billy Sharp twice threw an elbow then his head at Tom Clarke, but referee James Linington decided a talking to for both of them was all that was needed.
The final 20 minutes was well-managed by the greens, Declan Rudd making one fine save to tip over from Fleck just five minutes for the end, but Blackman was also needed at the other end, Callum Robinson sent through by Ben Pearson, only to see his 20 yard strike tipped up and over the bar, but it was not to matter as they held on for the vital win.
Sheffield United line-up: Blackman, Stevens, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham, Clarke, Sharp (c), Freeman (Baldock, 76), Stearman (Leonard, 81), Evans (Brooks, 66), Duffy. Subs not used: Moore, Lundstram, Donaldson, Lafferty.
PNE line-up: Rudd, Fisher, Cunningham (c), Pearson, Huntington, Davies, Browne, Johnson (Clarke, 68), Maguire (Barkhuizn, 58), Harrop (Gallagher, 67), Robinson. Subs not used: Maxwell, Moult, Earl, Bodin.
Attendance: 28,569 (1,610 PNE fans)
Referee: Mr J Linington