Match analysis: Sheffield United 3 Doncaster Rovers 2

Jose Baxter converts a penalty for United. Photo: Blades Sports Photography

Jose Baxter converts a penalty for United. Photo: Blades Sports Photography

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It might not be pleasant for those involved. The football, especially at such a pivotal stage of the campaign, rarely satisfies the purists.

But the battle for League One play-off qualification, which nearly took another twist at Bramall Lane on Tuesday night, has few equals in terms of sheer unpredictability and excitement.

In that sense, this South Yorkshire derby, containing thrills, spills and controversy aplenty, was the perfect advert for a division which enthralls and frustrates in equal measure.

Sheffield United came out on top but, like his counterpart Paul Dickov, Nigel Clough will have spent much of it in a state of nervous tension.

The result was harsh on Doncaster Rovers who saw Kyle Bennett score twice as these rivals traded punches.

But it was Steven Davies who, after Jose Baxter and Matt Done had hit the target for United, landed the decisive blow. And Clough, whose team remain fifth in the table, will not have minded one bit.

Eleven points and seven places separated these two rivals ahead of kick-off.

Although Rovers entered the contest as underdogs, Dickov’s side were emboldened by the knowledge they had not tasted defeat at United’s stadium for 33 years.

Michael Doyle was the only member of Clough’s 18 man squad born before that fixture in December 1982.

The finish which saw Bennett edge the visitors ahead will also live long in the memory of those supporters perched high in the upper tier of the Jessica Ennis Stand.

Likewise, Jamie McCombe’s needless challenge on Done which presented United with the opportunity to draw level before the type of tussle probably far too open for either manager’s likeing ensued.

The exchange which ended with the February signing from Rochdale edging Clough’s side ahead early in the second period perfectly reflected the seesaw nature of an utterly absorbing fixture.

James Coppinger saw an effort rebound back off a post moments before Done turned home to claim his 21st of the campaign. The excellent Bennett restored parity with another spectacular effort ony for provider to turn poacher as Davies, who had found Done with a fine centre, curled home.

Brayford prevented Richie Wellens from equalising when, with Mark Howard beaten, he headed a fierce drive clear before referee Scott Duncan inexplicably failed to spot his hand had blocked Enda Stevens’ shot with only three minutes remaining.

Clough had used his programme notes to explain that, after recruiting heavily during the past two transfer windows, United are still searching for a “viable system” capable of ensuring that, should promotion be achieved, their stay in the Championship would not be brief.

Or, as the former England international bluntly put it, “rather than us scrambling around for a season and then coming straight back down.”

Nevertheless, given the demands of a fixture schedule which has seen United play 56 matches since August, Clough has spent much of the past few weeks balancing medium-term aims with short-term gains,

That prompted him to make two changes to the starting 11 which had dispatched Barnsley in convincing fashion last weekend.

Jamie Murphy, who scored the only goal of the game when these two rivals met at the Keepmoat Stadium in November, failed to appear due to a back complaint while Terry Kennedy was ommited as coaching staff continue to nurse him back from injury. Baxter and Done were the beneficiaries of their colleagues’ misfortune and both

Rovers, by contrast, made three changes. Dickov, who had been scathing in his criticism of their performance against Bradford City four days earlier, recalled Nathan Tyson, Bennett and McCombe but it was Curtis Main, their joint-leading goalscorer in the league, who forced a superb save from Mark Howard in only the second minute. If Rovers hoped that passage of play, instigated by Bennett, would set the tone for the rest of the evening then they were mistaken. Even though the midfielder would later repay Dickov’s faith by handing them an 18th minute lead.

Andy Butler, who made just one appearance for United before being allowed to depart following a summer move from Walsall, was responsible for the foul on Davies which presented Baxter with an opportunity to test Stephen Bywater. His free-kick cannoned back off the wall but a Rovers rearguard which failed to keep a clean sheet in its previous five away outings came under pressure again when first Done and then Bob Harris unleashed speculative attempts.

The shot which saw Rovers take the lead, however, was clinical with Bennett expertly adjusting his balance after receiving Coppinger’s pass before sweeping the ball beyond a despairing Howard and into the back of United’s net.

United restored parity 11 minutes later when, moments after losing Harris to injury, Baxter pounced from the spot. Done was heading towards the corner flag when McCombe hacked him to the turf and the rest, given the former Everton and Oldham Athletic attacker’s prowess from dead ball situations, was a formality. It was the third time Baxter, scoring his 13th of the season, has converted from the penalty spot in as many games.

With neither side able to wrestle complete control, the half-time scoreline was a fair reflection of the action so far.

The second continued in a similar vein with Stephen Bywater appearing to handle outside of his area after being pressurised by Done before Coppinger struck the woodwork after meeting Bennett’s cross. Done made no mistake when Davies swept the ball across Rovers’ six yard box but, seven minutes later, Bennett completed his brace with another superb long-range shot on the hour.

Davies converted for the second time since arriving on loan from Blackpool with 18 minutes remaining before Brayford escaped after handling from Stevens and Howard denied Butler with an excellent reaction save. It was a fitting finale to a breathtaking game.

SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 7, Harris 5 (McEveley 28, 6), Brayford 7, Basham 7, Flynn 7 (Alcock 76), Baxter 7 (Doyle 63, 6), Done 7, Coutts 6, Freeman 6, S Davies 7, Holt 6. Not used: McNulty, Reed, Turner, Adams.

DONCASTER ROVERS: Bywater 6, Furman 6, McCombe 6, Main 7, Tyson 6 (Clarke-Harris 77), Butler 7, Stevens 6, Wellens 7, Wabara 6, Bennett 8, Coppinger 7 (Forrester 81). Not used: Evina, Jones, Razak, Marosi, Mandeville.

REFEREE: Scott Duncan (Northumberland), 5

ATTENDANCE: 20147

GOALS: Bennett (18, 60), Baxter (29), Done (53), Davies (72)

CAUTIONS: Wellens.

RED CARDS: None

REFEREE: Scott Duncan (Northumberland)

ATTENDANCE: 20,487 (1,439)