Halford seals Blades win

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Greg Halford's towering second-half header booked Sheffield United a date at Wembley for their fourth play-off final in 12 years with a 1-0 (2-1 aggregate) win over Preston.

The tall midfielder, on a season-long loan from Sunderland, rose to steer David Cotterill's cross into the top corner on the hour-mark to settle a typically nerve-jangling Coca-Cola Championship semi-final second leg against Preston at Bramall Lane.

Halford's winner was deserved and Kevin Blackwell's side now stand just one game away from a return to the Barclays Premier League, two years after they were controversially relegated.

The Blades shaded the first period with Brian Howard and Nick Montgomery outstanding in midfield, but while David Cotterill and Kyle Naughton peppered the Preston penalty area with crosses, the final ball eluded lone striker Craig Beattie.

The Blades came within a lick of paint from the opening goal five minutes into the second half when Howard's deft flick teed up Beattie, whose low drive shaved Preston goalkeeper Andy Lonergan's post.

Beattie then forced Lonergan into a fine one-handed save with a downward header from another Cotterill cross.

But Preston cracked under the deluge. Cotterill was again the supplier on the right and Halford rose highest to guide a superb header beyond Lonergan and into the far corner.

It had taken the Blades an hour to break the deadlock, but the visitors almost levelled it up three minutes later when Billy Jones' raking drive was parried by home goalkeeper Paddy Kenny. Preston's response was immediate and they enjoyed a period of sustained pressure.

Irvine sent on Mellor and Carter in the 72nd minute, but moments later Beattie almost doubled the Blades' advantage when his shot was blocked by Preston defender Sean St Ledger on the goalline. Moments later the sprawling Montgomery kept out Jones' low shot in similar fashion.

Blades midfielder Stephen Quinn was thwarted by the on-rushing Lonergan in the 86th minute and although Wiley played four minutes of time added on, the home side held firm and await either Burnley or Reading, who play in the second semi-final.

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Andy Lonergan
Sean St Ledger
Billy Jones
Craig Beattie
Brian Howard
Premier League
Preston North End
Stephen Quinn
Greg Halford
Sheffield United
Nick Montgomery
Kyle Naughton
David Cotterill
Billy Jones

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