League One play-offs: Swindon snatch slender lead in Blades battle
Swindon Town stunned Sheffield United to take a lead back to the West Country in their play-off semi-final thanks to a stoppage time strike from Nathan Byrne.
Fellow surprise source Sam Ricketts had earlier cancelled out Kieron Freeman’s opener with a header on a balmy night at Bramall Lane.
Mark Cooper’s men could have had a healthier advantage going into the return leg at the County Ground and are now 13/8 (from 11/4) with Coral for promotion, but Ben Gladwin saw his first-half penalty saved by Blades stopper Mark Howard when the Robins were a goal down.
Nigel Clough and the hosts may feel aggrieved they were not awarded a spot kick themselves when Jamie Murphy’s early cross struck the outstretched arm of Nathan Thompson, but referee Darren Bond waved away appeals.
Sheffield United striker Steven Davies, on loan from Blackpool, spurned several openings, the first of which came on the quarter hour when he failed to divert a Bob Harris cross-shot, up from left back, home.
The Blades did go ahead inside 20 minutes through the defender from the opposite flank Freeman. His interplay with winger Ryan Flynn and willingness to gamble by breaking into box rewarded home fans, as he struck low past Wes Foderingham.
Swindon almost hit back immediately as Michael Smith split right and put a delightful ball across the Blades’ area, but strike partner Jermaine Hylton was caught on his heels.
A gung-ho approach and quick feet from Robins right wing back Byrne resulted in Harris felling him inside the area, gifting Gladwin the chance to equalise. Howard’s fine save from a poor penalty preserved parity, however.
Byrne then had a crack himself, forcing the home keeper into another save before the break. Swindon levelled six minutes into the second half when veteran defender Ricketts headed home a Byrne corner, having lost his marker.
Flynn fired straight at Foderingham as the Blades battled back, and the introduction of Matt Done, declared fit after a groin problem, from the bench certainly inspired more attacking impetus.
The former Rochdale forward, who joined Sheffield United in January, had the ball in the net moments after his introduction, but was adjudged to have bundled Thompson over en route to goal.
Robins midfielder Yaser Kasim, an Iraq international, outshone engine room colleagues Gladwin and highly-rated Australian counterpart Massimo Luongo, though was booked for preventing a Blades break.
Davies then saw two decent chances go begging, first forcing Foderingham to parry and glancing a header wide moments later. Fellow Sheffield United sub Stefan Scougall also failed to get purchase on a Done delivery down the left.
Clough and his Blades, now 11/2 (from 13/5) to go up, were made to pay for this profligacy deep into stoppage time by Byrne, who rifled in from 25 yards with Howard seemingly deceived by the bounce the ball took off the Bramall Lane turf.
As away goals crucially do not count in the play-offs, Swindon’s lead is a slender one, but their superior record in this end of season competition and Cooper cleverly resting players could count a lot in the second leg.
In the other League One play-off semi, promotion favourites Preston North End (11/10 from 7/4) edged a tempestuous first leg at Chesterfield (rank 14/1 outsiders now) courtesy of Jermaine Beckford’s sixth minute winner.
Spireites midfielder Jimmy Ryan was lucky to escape red for swinging his arm in Paul Gallagher’s face after the break. This undercurrent notwithstanding, Simon Grayson’s side take a lead back to Deepdale.