A resolute performance from Bristol City saw them claim an impressive 2-1 victory at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane.
In the league’s opening fixture, it was the Robins who took the lead on 20 minutes through Aaron Wilbraham’s bullet header before Michael Higdon headed in United’s equaliser on 32 minutes.
The game was settled in the 72nd minute, though, as a nice Bristol City move was finished expertly by midfielder Wade Elliot to send his side back home with all three points and top of the league, for now!
City started in a 3-5-2 formation in their famous purple and green kit, reminiscent of the side’s FA Cup victory at Anfield 20 years ago, in the blockbuster clash between two of the favourites for promotion.
In front of almost 20,000 fans, it was City who started strongly without any clear cut chances but after around 10 minutes, United turned up and, together with Frank Fielding’s far from confident distribution, could have taken the lead. The ball then fell to full-back Bob Harris who struck the ball very nicely with his left foot but the ball flew just wide of Fielding’s left post.
Aden Flint and Aaron Wilbraham both had tame efforts before City took the lead. Mark Little, who was fantastic as wing-back all game, ran directly at the Blades’ defence before standing the ball up brilliantly for the former MK Dons, Norwich and Crystal Palace frontman to head powerfully beyond the scrambling Mark Howard in goal. The goal was Wilbraham’s first league goal in over two years and his delight was evident for all to see as he celebrated with a horrific dance, the less said about which the better! Fantastic play all round by the men in purple which manager Steve Cotterill will want to see plenty more of throughout the campaign.
After the goal though, the Robins seemed to crumble and allowed United to claim a foothold in the game, firstly after Fielding failed to deal with a high cross from the left, only for Scougall’s effort to be blocked on the line by Flint, followed a few minutes later by a fine tip over by the former Derby keeper to deny Higdon. Then a mix up in City defence was almost seized upon by the Yorkshire team as Flynn’s cross was missed by Stefan Scougall and Jamie Murphy’s effort was cleared off the line by Flint.
But United’s pressure paid off after Luke Freeman fouled Ben Davies out on the right, and it was Davies’ free kick which was headed home by Higdon. Bristol City’s zonal marking failed and Higdon had the run on a helpless Luke Ayling before glancing the ball beyond the flailing Fielding, nestling it into the far corner to level the match.
There was little more action in the half except for a clash between Bob Harris and Mark Little, the former clearly hurt and receiving lengthy treatment.
The second half took a while to get going, with the only notable action in the opening minutes bookings for Mark Little for a wild lunge and for United’s Murphy for simulation, a great decision by Lancashire referee Paul Tierney.
City could have regained the lead as Sam Baldock linked up with Wilbraham, as he did so well throughout the game, but the pass was slightly too heavy and City’s new striker couldn’t get his shot away, before more good play saw Freeman’s shot lack conviction and easily saved. The pair (Baldock and Wilbraham) have been reunited after their partnership at MK Dons saw 83 goals from 230 appearances between them.
Moments after former City winger Jamal Campbell-Ryce came on for the Blades, the Robins regained the lead. Fielding played out to Williams whose long ball was well headed on by Little to Wilbraham. The 6’4″ striker ingeniously flicked the ball with his heel into the path of Wade Elliot who kept his composure and his first time strike was too good for Howard and the Robins fans erupted.
After a goal and an assist, Wilbraham was almost instrumental in another goal as he headed down for Freeman to jinx his way through a number of players in red and white, almost Messi-like, but dragged his shot just wide.
Marlon Pack replaced Freeman before it was a heart-in-the-mouth moment for City. United full-back Davies went down under the challenge of goal-scorer Elliot in the box and the whistle blew, only for Davies to be the second Sheffield United player to be booked for simulation, correctly. It was another fantastic decision by the referee, who had a very good game indeed.
Greg Cunningham almost went all the way before another fantastic save from Fielding, turning Murphy’s sweeping close-range shot onto the post before it was cleared off the line by Flint, once again!
United again went close when a cross from the right was knocked goal-wards by a combination of Basham and the defending Ayling, but United striker Marc McNulty seemed to divert the ball away from the goal, preventing an equaliser for his side.
Scott Wagstaff and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas made late appearances and helped to see out the five minutes of additional time and the big forward could have sealed the game in the final minute. Smith squared across the 6-yard box, the defender missed it but Emmanuel-Thomas wasn’t alive and didn’t react in time.
But the two goals were enough for the Robins, and “we are top of the league” could be heard from the upper tier of the Jessica Ennis stand as the final whistle blew!
City manager Steve Cotterill said, “it was a big game and we hit Sheffield United at the right time, doing well to win the game.” He added, “we scored two fantastic goals but the defending was rubbish. Frank Fielding pulled off a couple of top saves”
Overall, an extremely satisfying win for the Robins who will hope they can push on from this victory against Oxford United on Tuesday before Colchester arrive at Ashton Gate next Saturday.
Player Ratings: Fielding – 7, mixed day, nervy start but some vital saves and catches late on; Ayling – 6, beaten for the goal, pretty solid; Flint – 10, fantastic from first minute to last, faultless; Williams – 7, solid day, some good challenges; Little – 8, got up and down very well ideal wing-back, cracking assist; Elliot – 7, good performance and scored the winner; Freeman – 7, some good spells, could have grabbed a goal; Smith – 6, again solid performance, nothing special but did his job well; Cunningham – 6, few silly fouls but was generally good both in attack and defence; Baldock – 8, some great off the ball runs and link up play with strike partner; Wilbraham – 10; superb performance up top, great header, exquisite assist and very impressive; Subs: Pack – 7, some good tackles and did his job to sit in midfield; Wagstaff – N/A; Emmanuel-Thomas – N/A;