Exeter 1, Sheffield United 2 Match Report: Adkins’ blueprint begins to take shape

Neill Collins (15) celebrates United's first goal
Neill Collins (15) celebrates United's first goal

Creativity, clean sheets and control will be the three basic tenets, Nigel Adkins insisted before this match, of his Sheffield United regime.

Inevitably, having been appointed less than eight weeks ago, ‘Project Promotion’ remains a work in progress.

Jamie Murphy takes on Matt Oakley

Jamie Murphy takes on Matt Oakley

But, against industrious and inventive opponents, there were further signs that last term’s beaten play-off semi-finalists are embracing the blueprint which has brought Adkins so much success in the past as goals from Neill Collins and Che Adams preserved his unblemished record.

“Everything we are doing is geared towards Gillingham,” Adkins said.

“Our first match of the League One season and beyond.

“That is the whole purpose, from our perspective, of these friendlies. Even more so than the results. There’s no point in trying to keep any secrets about it. We want that positivity and we want to go up.”

Martyn Woolford

Martyn Woolford

Adkins led both Scunthorpe and Southampton into the Championship before arriving at Bramall Lane. Repeating those achievements, which made him such an irresistible proposotion for United’s board, will be no easy task as his new employers’ trials and tribulations since being relegated four years ago have shown.

Nevertheless, despite resolving to bolster their options at centre-forward and centre-half, Adkins believes the core of an effective squad already exists. Give or take a few tweaks here and there.

“The players have been working extremely hard and we’re really pleased with that. Their attitude and application has been excellent. Those are always the foundations. When you have those, then you can build from there.”

United entered last night’s match at St James Park searching for their third straight victory following victories over Ilkeston FC and Cheltenham Town.

Jose Baxter in action

Jose Baxter in action

While co-chairman Kevin McCabe and Jim Phipps apply the finishing touches to a deal for Billy Sharp, those players already at Adkins’ disposal set about equally serious business of cementing a place in his team.

Exeter, as as befits a team managed by Paul Tisdale, possessed plenty of style with David Wheeler and Aaron Davies among those forging chances.

But, for the most part, it was United who pressed with Chris Basham blasting a first time shot over the crossbar after Collins had conceded the penalty which enabled Tom Nichols to cancel-out his earlier intervention.

Again, despite some encouraging performances from United’s seasoned professionals, it was their youngsters who really caught the eye.

Neill Collins rises to head home for United

Neill Collins rises to head home for United

Adams showcased his searing pace and sound technique when he restored the visitors’ advantage while Dominic Calvert-Lewin nearly produced something even more special moments later following a superb piece of individual skill.

On this occasion, the all-important final touch escaped him.

But, like Adams, Calvert-Lewin seems destined for a bright future in the game.

With Adkins thought to be monitoring a potential foil for Sharp, the performances of Michael Higdon and Marc McNuly will come under particular scrutiny in recent weeks.

Especially as preciously talented youngsters Adams and Diego De Girolamo, together with new signing Martyn Woolford, can also operate in central roles.

They demonstrated plenty of movement when, after Exeter had made an encouraging start, United were able to impose themselves upon the contest although Higdon’s night was later cut short by injury.

But it was a defender, Collins, who turned home beyond Bobby Olejnik in the 12th minute following Woolford’s perfectly flighted corner. Improving United’s returns from set-pieces has featured prominently on United’s to-do list of late.

So Adkins, together with his lieutenents Andy Crosby and Dean Wilkins, will have been encouraged to see another, again taken by Woolford, nearly reach Collins before the Exeter goalkeeper punched clear.

A deft feint saw Jamie Murphy evade his marker when another, this time taken by Baxter, was awarded on the opposite flank but the former Scotland under-21 international’s centre was not turned home.

Kieron Freeman outstripped his marker soon after the interval and picked-out the onrushing Chris Basham but the former Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool player, again deployed in midfield, scooped over from close-range. Adkins’ decision to make nine substitutions with half-and-hour remaining affected United’s rhythm.

Long prevented Alex Nicholls from edging Exeter ahead following a darting run but, at the other end, Adams and Calvert-Lewin combined to give Olejnik another huge scare.

Adams showed Exeter’s rearguard a clean pair of heels in the 79th minute before dispatching an angled drive into the back of the net but, despite the best efforts of De Girolamo and Calvert-Lewin, United could not extend their lead further.

Adkins revealed afterwards that Mark Howard had been scheduled to “play 60 minutes” but, like Higdon, was withdrawn as a “precautionary measure.”

“Mark just felt his thigh a little kicking a ball during the warm-up,” Adkins said.

“Michael’s hamstring tightened up a bit just before half-time. Neither problem appears to be serious or anything to worry about but, at this stage of the season, there’s no point in takin g any sort of risk.”

EXETER CITY SQUAD: Olejnik, Noble, McAllister, Ribeiro, Harley, Oakley (McReady 63), Holmes, Davies, Nichols, Wheeler, Brown. Substitutes: Hamon, Butterfield, Nicholls, Reid, Oyeleke, Tillson, Jay, Watkins, Read, Egan, Down.

SHEFFIELD UNITED: Long, Basham (J Wallace 62), Murphy (Calvert-Lewin 62), Baxter (Reed 62), McNulty, Collins (McGahey 62), McEveley (K Wallace 62), Campbell-Ryce (Scougall 62), Freeman (Dimaio 63), Higdon (Adams 46), Woolford (McFadzean 62). Not used: Howard.

REFEREE: Kevin Johnson.