Sheffield United moved up to second in League One with their seventh consecutive win in all competitions, against Martin Allen’s Notts County, in a game made notable by the return of James Beattie.
It was a battling and workmanlike performance but United once again would argue they were just about value for the win despite a really good effort from the visitors, who pushed United right to the end.
United’s only change was the introduction of winger Flynn for the suspended Lee Williamson, but James Beattie had finally made it to the bench. Visiting County began with the experienced pairing of Lee Hughes and Ben Burgess up front.
United began with Flynn on the left and Quinn wide right but County started well and it was a relatively even opening; McDonald was influential in United’s passing moves but Hughes and Bishop were proving combative opponents and the hosts were not having it completely their own way.
On 17 minutes, United conceded their first league goal since Bonfire night, at Stevenage. Hughes and Maguire grappled for a ball and it appeared as if the experienced striker had hold of the youngster’s shirt but referee Moss gave the decision to the visitors. The free-kick from wide on the left was curled in by Judge and bounced once before getting away from Simonsen into the top corner without a touch.
United were aggrieved at the buildup to the goal, and Quinn was booked not long after when another foul was given against the home side. The Blades tried to retain possession, and a neat move led to a chance for Evans, who fired wide. It was not long before the leveller came, though.
Maguire took possession on halfway and threaded a nice ball into the path of Cresswell, who let the ball run and then advanced before putting a low cross into the path of the onrushing Flynn, who got across his defender to coolly sidefoot home a deserved equaliser.
United were in control and went forward again. Lowton cleverly sidestepped his way into the box and his low shot was saved at the near post by Nelson, before Evans volleyed wide after a cross from Francois. McDonald and Quinn combined for the former to have a shot pushed away by the keeper and then Lowton should have scored but headed badly over when completely free at a corner.
County, though on the back foot, had a chance to go back in front when a clever ball put Judge through, but his low shot on the angle was saved well by Simonsen and Francois eventually cleared the rebound.
United began the second half strongly and took the led within six minutes. Evans and Pearce chased a long ball down the inside-right channel and out of play. It was debatable who the ball had come off but as Pearce appealed, Evans quickly took the throw and found Quinn. The winger lobbed the ball into box and, as Cresswell and Sheehan converged on it, the ball spooned up over Nelson and into the net. It seemed as if it was an own goal despite the PA giving it to Cresswell.
Another good spell followed for the home side, and a series of corners led to a succession of chances. Collins had a header saved at point-blank range and then McDonald and Lowton both had shots blocked from the second corner. Demontagnac and Hawley came on for County, who knew they had to throw more men forward.
A Jeff Hughes shot took a deflection and span up before Simonsen did well to claw the ball behind. United were dropping deeper and had to contend with a number of excellent crosses from Sheehan. Collins and Maguire continued to stand firm but United still looked dangerous when they did go forward.
Evans lung-busting run beat two men for pace but his shot was straight at Nelson, who pushed it away and then McDonald’s deflected effort looked as if it would land in the net but went just the wrong side of the post as the Kop held their breath.
United were beginning to tire and brought on Ertl for McDonald to help protect the defence. Evans had another half chance and looked to have a case for a penalty when Sodje felled him, but the Welshman found himself booked for his protests.
County had their best chance of the second half when, after a scramble had seemingly been cleared, the ball was returned and Hawley hit a spectacular overhead scissor kick that flew straight at Simonsen’s face. The keeper did well to hold the shot; either side and it surely would have been a goal.
County then had their own moment of fortune when, after a scramble at the other end from a corner, Evans’s low shot hit the base of the post and rebounded away. It was entertaining, certainly, but United were not out of the woods, as the visitors pumped the ball forward at every opportunity.
Finally the crowd got they wanted, and the team got a break from the County onslaught: after weeks of injuries and illness, Beattie finally stepped out in a Sheffield United shirt again. He came onto the pitch to a standing ovation, replacing the hard-working Cresswell. Almost immediately, lovely control of a ball out of the sky showed the class of the returning hero, and he would have been disappointed when an Evans cross sailed over his head when he was unmarked on the penalty spot.
Demontagnac got involved in a bit of unnecessary handbags after a foul on a United player and seemed to firstly throw his arm towards Lowton and then hurled the ball at his face. After consulting with his assistant, Mr Moss showed the former Coventry man a red card. Right at the death, Nick Montgomery came on for Flynn.
United celebrated not only another win, but the return of former hero Beattie and of stalwart and club captain, Montgomery; if the transfer window can be navigated successfully, come May, this victory may be remembered for more than just the three points.