When the fixtures were released at the start of the season, Nigel Adkins will have identified this match as the type to separate genuine promotion contenders from the also-rans.
No home advantage, no opening day anomalies and no quarter given by opponents expected to mount a serious challenge themselves.
So, despite acknowledging that the runners and riders in the race for Championship football have yet to break sweat, the Sheffield United manager could barely conceal his satisfaction following last night’s hard-fought but richly deserved win which lifted the visitors to eighth.
“It’s early days, we’re still a work in progress but, going forward, we look a real threat,” Adkins said. “There’s still plenty we can do to improve and we’re nowhere near the level we want to reach at the moment. We’ll stay grounded and strive to get better at everything we do.”
Despite being built like a heavyweight boxer, Conor Sammon possesses a surprisingly delicate touch.
Nevertheless, after threatening to prise Peterborough apart on several occasions by instigating some subtle, intricate moves, it was a show of brute force which ultimately did the trick.
Sammon, scoring for the first time in United colours, laid the foundations for their third victory of the new season by thundering home beyond Ben Alnwick. Souleymane Coulibaly replied in equally emphatic fashion but, in contrast to some of its predecessors, this United squad is made of very stern stuff.
“Credit to Peterborough, that was a very difficult game,” Adkins said. “We knew they would be tough opponents but it’s good to see that resiliance among the boys.”
Adkins is fond of describing League One football as a grind. Injuries to Stefan Scougall and Neill Collins underlined the often brutal nature of third tier competition while, on occasion, United were forced to live on their wits. But, following some shrewd manoeuvres in the transfer market, the visitors now boast the firepower to translate pressure into goals. Not to mention, as Jose Baxter demonstrated during the closing stages, a callous streak.
Sammon, aided and abetted by Che Adams and the tireless Billy Sharp, is already proving a particularly astute acquisition. A fact he underlined by beating Alnwick again midway through the second-half to deny plucky but porous Peterborough a share of the spoils. Baxter, sweeping home a typically intelligent finish from just inside the penalty area, simply twisted the knife.
“The second goal was a real sucker punch,” Dave Robertson, the Peterborough manager, said. “Sheffield United are a good team with a good guy at the helm but the only thing that concerns me is that we’ve lost.”
Adkins, taking charge of only his fourth competitive fixture since being appointed two months ago, has expressed a desire to see United improve their game-management in recent weeks. So, despite watching both Sharp and Kieron Freeman enjoy early opportunities, he will have taken no pleasure from the fact the action quickly became stretched. What pleases the crowd does not always make pleasurable viewing for coaching staff. Adkins cut an agitated figure on the touchline as his team wrestled control of the early exchanges only to, as they surged forward in numbers, provide Conor Washington with several obscured sights of goal.
Fortunately, Sammon soothed Adkins’ nerves by firing United into a deserved 15th minute lead. The centre-forward, on loan from Derby County, had already served notice of his intentions by twice escaping Ricardo Almeida Santos’ clutches. As Peterborough reorganised following Kgosi Ntlhe’s departure, Sammon collected Sharp’s through ball and powered it into the roof of Alnwick’s net.
United were forced into a reshuffle themselves when Scougall and Collins both departed in quick succession. The sight of two influential players seeing their evening curtailed by injury might have provided Robertson with a much needed source of encouragement as his side attempted to restore parity. Poor Alex Davey, however, was left to rue Scougall’s exit as Jamal Campbell-Ryce, his replacement, tormented him all night. One cross the United substitute produced, after ghosting past the on-loan Chelsea youngster, simply begged to be turned home.
Peterborough, for all their attacking prowess, struggled to make Mark Howard work until Harry Anderson wriggled clear during the
Santos could, indeed should, have done better when he met a set-piece at the far post but headed tamely wide while Jay McEveley, reverting to centre-half in Collins’ absence, produced a superb block to prevent Washington equalising just before half-time.
At the other end, David Edgar glanced a header of his own just wide following Campbell-Ryce’s expertly taken free-kick. Sammon continued to cause Peterborough problems and, moments after the re-start, it was his lay-off which presented Chris Basham with an opportunity to double United’s lead.
The midfielder failed to take advantage, ballooning his shot high and wide, but redeemed himself by shepherding Anderson to safety when the Peterborough winger attempted to dart through.
United, naming the same starting XI and bench which had beaten Chesterfield three days earlier, received another reminder that the hosts were far from a busted flush soon after Basham’s intervention.
Again, it was Anderson, released by Crawley Town when their youth system was disbanded, who nearly made them pay but Howard proved equal to the task with a fine reaction save. He was powerless to prevent Coulibaly hitting the target soon after, though, when the Ivorian youngster found space on the edge of the box.
United’s response came in the shape of a Sharp shot which had Alnwich scampering anxiously across his line following a Wallace throw-in. Sharp presented himself again but stumbled at the vital moment as Peterborough were granted another reprieve. Sammon, however, was in much more ruthless mood and duly claimed his second of the contest after combining with Adams before Baxter, assisted by James Wallace, made it three.
Peterborough United: Alnwick, Ntlhe (Brisley 14), Zakuani, Bostwick, Maddison, Santos, Washington, Davey (Payne 73), Gormley (Coulibaly 54), H Anderson, Collison. Not used: Henry, Taylor, Vassell, J Anderson.
Sheffield United: Howard, Freeman, Basham, Sharp (J Wallace 75), Baxter, Collins (K Wallace 25), Scougall (Campbell-Ryce 20), Sammon, McEveley, Adams, Edgar. Not used: Long, McNulty, Woolford, Reed.
Referee: N Miller (County Durham).