Sheffield United defender Richard Stearman breaks down Middlesbrough while

  • Sheffield United 1 Middlesbrough 0

Sheffield United maintained their hold on third place in the Championship, overcoming Middlesbrough through a headed goal by Richard Stearman in the second half, minutes before Tony Pulis’s team were reduced to 10 men when defender Daniel Ayala was sent off.

Ayala picked up two yellow cards in the space of six minutes for two premeditated fouls, which served neatly to sum up Middlesbrough performance, designed to niggle and frustrate rather than create.

Chris Wilder’s side looked none the worse for missing an opportunity to go top when they allowed a three-goal lead to slip away from them at Aston Villa last Friday and might have won by a wider margin, referee Andy Woolmer denying them what looked a clear penalty.

In the event, Pulis felt the ­officials were at fault in awarding the free-kick that led to Stearman’s goal and for allowing the header to stand, claiming the United player used his arms on Dael Fry for leverage.

He questioned whether referee Woolmer had sufficient experience

“This was a big occasion and he has had only eight Championship games this season, so that’s ­disappointing,” Pulis said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilder was dismissive of that view. “I think if it was the other way Tony would have been fuming if it had been ­disallowed,” he said.

There had been little between the sides in the first half, with a good save each for goalkeepers Darren Randolph and Dean ­Henderson keeping it scoreless.

United upped their tempo in the second half and had a solid claim for a penalty when Ryan Shotton appeared to impede substitute Gary Madine as he tried to convert a low cross. Billy Sharp then had the ball in the net, but was denied for offside and soon afterwards came the goal, powered home by Stearman from Oliver Norwood’s free-kick.

Soon afterwards, Boro were down to 10 men as Ayala was sent off, a second yellow for a late challenge on Kieran Dowell only minutes after a blatant foul on David McGoldrick earned him a first.

Match details

Sheffield United (4-3-1-2): Henderson; Baldock (Stearman 45), Cranie, Egan Stevens; Norwood, Fleck, Dowell; Duffy (Madine 46); Sharp (Coutts 86), McGoldrick.
Subs: Moore (g), Lundstram, Bryan, Hogan.
Booked: Norwood, Fleck.

Middlesbrough (3-4-2-1): Randolph; Ayala, Flint (Downing 34), Fry; Shotton, Saville (Assombalonga 67), Mikel, Friend; Wing, Howson (Van La Parra 81); Hugill.
Subs: Konstantopoulos (g), Clayton, Besic, Fletcher.
Booked: Shotton, Ayala.
Sent off: Ayala.

Referee: Andy Woolmer (Northamptonshire).