Leeds United v Sheffield United: Whites blunt the Blades

A number of the tickets allocated to Sheffield United at Elland Road on Saturday found no takers and for 81 minutes of their derby against Leeds United, the scores who declined were pleased that they had.

Games of this ilk are notorious for underwhelming the paying public, but enticing fixtures are rarely so deceptive.

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"A typical derby," was Leeds boss Simon Grayson's description, another way of saying that the resumption of hostilities between the clubs was not altogether worth the money or the wait.

The show at Elland Road did not lack plotlines: the return of Gary Speed, Sheffield United's manager, to the club where he won the first division title 18 years ago; his duel with a coach in Grayson whom he has known since the pair were teenagers; and the end of a four-and-a-half year interlude since the last confrontation between the teams.

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Imagination abounded, in theory at least. But not until the last eight minutes, when a forgettable game seemed to remember its significance, did the clubs merit the attendance of the 33,622 souls who pushed through the turnstiles.

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What occurred in those minutes was drama on a scale that the finest of derbies would struggle to emulate.

Condensed into the twilight of the match was a winning goal, a near-miss in reply and two red cards, both of them debatable. However unimaginative the afternoon had been, the twist at the death was remarkable and unforeseen.

Grayson and Speed could not have expected the chaos that ensued after a mistake in the 82nd minute for which Stephen Jordan was culpable.

Sheffield United's left-back hacked at a clearance from George McCartney, missing the ball and ushering it to the feet of Robert Snodgrass. With an open field ahead of him, Snodgrass tore towards the byline and slipped a pass to Bradley Johnson, three yards out.

A defence in disarray could not impede a midfielder who is developing a knack of arriving in the right place at the right time. The difference between his goals against Swansea City and Sheffield United was that the latter defied probability.

Jordan's error lit a fire beneath the game and the bedlam it created was endless. Snodgrass incurred the game's first red card when his foul on Leon Britton drew a second booking from referee Anthony Taylor and Jon Ertl looped a header against the bar in injury-time as Sheffield United threw themselves at Leeds.

Taylor was almost ready to call a halt by then but still had time to dismiss Jamie Ward after the striker lunged at Neil Kilkenny, deep inside Leeds' half.

Belated the controversy may have been but those last eight minutes gave Grayson what he wanted. In a head-to-head confrontation with Speed, a former Leeds team-mate and long-standing friend, Grayson had no intention of coming off worse.

For Speed, the day was not the occasion it promised to be. The reception given to him before kick-off was muted to the point of nondescript and the final scoreline rankled.

Had he enjoyed his afternoon in Leeds? "Not really," he said. "If we'd won or got a result then I might have done."

Grayson was careful, too, not to make too much of a performance that contained Sheffield United without regularly hurting them. But the result was another indication, if one was needed, of how precious and infrequent points taken from Elland Road this season might be.

"If we stay in the game, we've always got a chance," he said. Nowhere more so than in their own stadium.

Johnson's winning goal was a vindication of Grayson's boldest pre-match decision, alongside two others that made perfect sense.

The selection of debutant McCartney and Luciano Becchio in place of Aidan White and Ross McCormack were sensible changes but the demotion of Neil Kilkenny to the bench represented a risk.

The Australian has the reputation of a gifted ball-player, a midfielder whose strength is in dictating proceedings from the centre of the field. Grayson opted to use Johnson, identifying the need for more aggression against Ertl and Nick Montgomery, a partnership he knew would seek to bully his team.

To that end, the alteration had the desired effect, giving no quarter to Sheffield United at any stage of a congested game. The compromise was a dearth of creativity in the absence of Kilkenny's passing and vision.

Prior to Johnson's goal, meaningful chances were limited to the one he narrowly failed to convert in the first half.

His header at the end of Max Gradel's cross on 28 minutes brought a fine reaction from Steve Simonsen, who dived to his left and threw a hand in front of the ball.

Even after less than half an hour, the contest yearned for the goal that Simonsen's fingertips prevented.

Johnson's chance was one of several occasions when Gradel tormented Jean Calve, a right-back who Speed sensibly substituted at the interval.

The remainder of Leeds' chances were speculative; Sheffield United, meanwhile, created nothing better than a free-kick from Stephen Quinn that Shane Higgs held in the 44th minute.

It was easy to forget that the goalkeeper was on the pitch.

The second half followed a near identical pattern and a shift of momentum towards Sheffield United was noticeable but negligible.

Speed called up Ward from his substitutes' bench on the hour and Grayson responded by making use of Snodgrass. Kilkenny and McCormack followed the Scot onto the field but were able to do nothing more than nudge the match towards what looked a goalless end.

In a pensive atmosphere, Taylor began to lose his way. Dubious decisions crept into his performance and Snodgrass was harshly booked for obstructing a free-kick in front of Sheffield United's dug-out. He would pay for the caution later.

The mood of the players was exposed by Jonathan Howson and Kyle Bartley squabbling over an innocuous challenge that both players were entitled to make. The prospect of a draw was failing to satisfy.

Under no pressure, Jordan broke the impasse. Snodgrass left the defender trailing and worked space for himself inside Sheffield United's box, laying off the ball to Johnson who could not miss from such close range.

Snodgrass had waited many weeks for that feeling of elation, having recently recovered from a semi-serious knee injury, but he was punished by Taylor with a second yellow card after sliding into Britton.

As Snodgrass walked down the tunnel, Ertl leapt to meet Montgomery's cross and nodded the ball against the bar, denied an equaliser by a matter of inches.

Ward felt aggrieved himself when Taylor took a critical view of his tackle on Kilkenny, despite the striker making no contact.

Speed criticised both red cards but was more concerned with Jordan's mistake, remarking that "only an error could have made the difference" in a game of so little inspiration. No truer words were spoken on Saturday.

Leeds United: Higgs, Hughes, Bruce, Collins, McCartney, Sam (Snodgrass 60), Johnson, Howson, Gradel (Kilkenny 72), Becchio, Somma (McCormack 76). Subs (not used): Brown, Naylor, Faye, Watt.

Sheffield United: Simonsen, Calve (De Laet 46), Nosworthy, Bartley, Jordan, Britton, Ertl, Montgomery, Cresswell, Quinn (Ward 59), Evans (Yeates 81). Subs (not used): Wright, Bogdanovic, Taylor, Lowton.

Referee: Anthony Taylor (Greater Manchester)

Attendance: 33,622.