Crewe Alexandra were rather unfortunate not to get anything from a tough trip to Bramall Lane after fighting back from 2-0 down to level things up, but Billy Sharp headed home a late winner for the Blades.
The Alex were trailing 2-0 just after the hour mark thanks to goals from Che Adams and Ryan Flynn but a much more spirited second half from the Railwaymen saw us fight back to level things up with just seven minutes left. David Fox drilled home a low shot past George Long to give us a passage back into the game before Harry Davis tucked home a cross from Callum Ainley to make it 2-2.
It looked as though that would be that, but with three minutes left, a well worked move from the home side saw Sheffield United substitute Louis Reed cross for Billy Sharp to head home from close range. It was heartbreaking for the Alex, who improved greatly in the second half.
Steve Davis made two changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Blackpool last weekend. With the Crewe Alexandra boss switching to three at the back for the trip to Bramall Lane, there was a recall for Ben Nugent at the heart of the defence with Ollie Turton and Zoumana Bakayogo operating as wing-backs.
With Marcus Haber away on International duty with Canada, Tom Hitchcock earned a recall after he made the right impact as a late substitute against Blackpool last weekend. George Cooper was the other player to miss out with Charlie Kirk granted the chance to play in the hole behind Hitchcock and Brad Inman.
The former Crewe Alexandra right-back John Brayford lined up for the Blades.
Prior to kick off, there was a one-minute of silence to remember those who were sadly killed in the recent terrorist attack in Brussels.
A bright start from the home side saw them force a corner within the first 60 seconds. Matt Done’s delivery from the Crewe left hand side found Brayford at the far post and his firm header initially looked to have deceived Ben Garratt, but the Alex goalkeeper superbly clawed it out with one hand before it crossed the line. It was an outstanding save to prevent a disastrous start.
Kirk’s first burst forward saw him find Turton down the left hand side, and after he had skipped around Done, his drilled cross had to be turned behind by the Blades captain Jay McEveley. From the resulting corner, Jones low cross to the edge of the box was cleverly left by Inman, but Kirk, following up, couldn’t keep his shot down enough to trouble George Long.
After Captain Harry Davis had blocked a close range effort from Billy Sharp with his face, the Sheffield United number 10 went close to giving his side the lead on 15 minutes when his curling effort smacked the Crewe left hand post. The Alex managed to smuggle the rebound behind for a corner.
Just three minutes later, the deadlock was broken after Sheffield United regained possession in the midfield area directly from our own goal kick. The ball was quickly worked into Sharp on the edge of the Crewe penalty area and with a simple two-on-one situation he simply slipped Che Adams in on goal. The former Ilkeston youngster kept his composed to simply slot the ball past a helpless Garratt.
Sheffield United continued to confidently keep the ball and they controlled much of the midfield area but Crewe Alexandra defended our penalty area reasonably well. In at attacking sense, the likes of Hitchcock and Inman were feeding on scraps or high balls. Hitchcock nearly made a real nuisance of himself with one longer ball entering the Sheffield United penalty area, but Long rushed from his goal to apply a necessary touch to just take it away from the on-loan forward.
Paul Coutts shot wide from distance after he had been found in too much space by Chris Basham, who was stepping into midfield whenever the opportunity presented itself. Sharp did have the ball in the Crewe net again after Garratt had pushed away at initial effort from Done but the assistant had correctly raised his flag for offside.
With ten minutes of the first half remaining, Crewe also had a slight case for a penalty after James Jones went down inside the box but the protests were not so forceful from the Alex players. Five minutes later and the home side should have doubled their advantage after we surrendered possession from our own throw-in. The lack in concentration again left us exposed to a two-on-one situation and Sharp again found Adams but on this occasion he shot inches wide of our right hand post. It was a let off.
Crewe made a tactical change at the interval with Billy Bingham replacing Nugent as Crewe switched to 4-3-1-2. Starting on the front foot, a quick interchange of passing between Kirk and Inman saw the Australian’s cross just clear the head of the onrushing Hitchcock.
Bingham then fed Inman down the touchline and his really forceful run saw him advance into the Sheffield United penalty area. Basham was trailing Inman but wasn’t going to halt him and his shot was blocked by McEveley. From the corner, Kirk then forced Long into his first meaningful save of the afternoon.
With Crewe making a much better fist of it in the second half, a melee inside the box saw Bingham have a close ranger effort blocked before another effort from distance from the bright substitute was swallowed up by the well placed Long. It was much better from the Railwaymen as an attacking threat.
Crewe also had a strong shout for a penalty waved away after Basham appeared to go through the back of Inman. The Sheffield United defender didn’t look as though he had got anything on the ball and the Alex players vented their frustration to referee Andy Woolmer.
Davis did well to prevent a low cross from Adams from reaching his strike partner Sharp at the far post before Jon Guthrie was the first player to be booked for a foul close to the touchline. A Bingham free-kick then hit Inman in the wall to spin it into safety for the Blades.
All of our good work was undone just after the hour mark as Sheffield United doubled their lead. The cross to the far post saw Sharp win the initial header to nod it down into the six yard box and although Davis nodded his own header down, Ryan Flynn improvised superbly well to hook the ball over his own net and into the Crewe net.
With 24 minutes remaining, Crewe made their second change with Lauri Dalla Valle replacing Hitchcock. Sheffield United also made a change with Ben Whiteman coming on for Dean Hammond.
Two minutes later, Fox fired Crewe back into the game with a well struck drive into the bottom corner. Crewe had been really patient in the build up to work the ball into Fox in space and his shot from 20 yards flew into Long’s bottom corner for his second goal of the season.
Crewe’s final change on 75 minutes saw young Callum Ainley replace Jones, as we went in search of an equaliser. Fox clipped a cross to the far post that just evaded the stretching Bingham.
Adams was replaced by Dominic-Clavert-Lewin as the game entered the final ten minutes at Bramall Lane. The injured Coutts also made for Louis Reed.
Great work from Bakayogo saw him advance down the Sheffield United right hand side and after he had played an interchange of passes with Inman, his cross was just cut out before it reached Kirk.
Crewe Alexandra continued to press and it paid off in the 83rd minute. Substitute Ainley reached the by-line to latch into a pass from Turton and his chipped cross was tucked home from close range by Captain Davis. It had been a fantastic fight back from Steve Davis’ side and it step up a grandstand finish with us on top.
But just four minutes later all that hard work was undone as Sheffield United unlocked our defence to score the winner. The two substitutes, Whiteman and Reed combined to get down the Crewe left hand side and Reed’s tempting cross was headed home by Sharp.
Crewe’s late chance to salvage a point saw young Kirk unleash a rocket of a shot that just cleared the top corner. Inman also fired straight at Long after a promising run.
The best chance fell to right-back Ollie Turton in stoppage time after Long had missed Bakayogo’s fizzing cross but his side footed shot was somehow blocked on the line. No-one could quite believe it.