It would be an exaggeration to say a siege mentality is developing behind the scenes at Bramall Lane.
But, after a disappointing sequence of results, Nigel Adkins and his Sheffield United players entered last night’s game finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between friend and foe alike.
Being swept aside in such emphatic fashion by a Shrewsbury Town team which remains perilously close to the relegation zone will do nothing to silence their critics. Indeed, so dishevelled were United for long periods, it only pours even more fuel on the fire.
“We can’t hide away from the fact that we aren’t where we want to be and that you can’t concede four at home if you want to challenge,” he said.
“I’ll reflect on what happened and the situations which arose.”
When Adkins took charge during the close season, it was supposed to mark the start of a bright new era.
Instead, on this latest evidence, four years of League One hurt could well become five if some very serious issues are not addressed.
Only two wins from nine outings in all competitions does not auger well. Unless, as he demanded afterwards, it provokes the desired response. Strong characters are required and Adkins, who acknowledged there would be “consequences”, is one of those.
“I won’t shy away from anything,” he said.
“I’ve not the type of person to do that.”
Visiting teams, so the theory goes, arrive at this stadium determined to sit-back and frustrate. But Shrewsbury, registering their first victory here since February 1988, had clearly come to create rather than contain.
Those lofty ambitions perhaps explained why Conor Sammon found himself in acres of space before breaking the deadlock following a fractious opening period.
But they also guaranteed United more anxious moments than might otherwise have been the case and enabled Micky Mellon’s side to turn the match on its head during a devastating 86-second spell soon after.
Sulley Kaikai, on loan from Crystal Palace, equalised with a powerful finish before Ian Black pounced. United complained, with some justification, that an offside flag should have been raised during the build-up to his goal.
But, just as when Scott Vernon extended Shrewsbury’s lead, the biggest question mark hung over the hosts’ defence.
Adkins delivered his own verdict, making three substitutions, and the home crowd issued theirs. Albeit in even more brutal terms.
With four promotions on his managerial CV, the former Southampton and Scunthorpe chief knows what it takes to fashion a successful squad. Behind the uber-positive exterior, a ruthless professional lurks.
So, despite trailing sixth-placed Bradford City by only five points, many of those presently in possession of a United jersey will view the January transfer window with a trepidation and dread. Unless this thoroughly miserable outcome strengthens their resolve and focuses some minds.
United, who showed signs of doing exactly that after Dean Hammond converted Bob Harris’ set-piece, are better than this. But their season is now at a crossroads and results speak louder than well-meaning words.
Adkins has claimed the debilitating injury list he inherited after taking charge in June has been a factor behind United’s inconsistent form.
The return to fitness of players such as Paul Coutts and Harris has gone a long way towards easing the pressure on the 50-year-old’s squad although John Brayford’s admission, relayed via the official matchday programme, that he is “ready to play” following a six month absence will be particularly welcome news for the manager and his staff ahead of the crucial Christmas period.
Brayford watched this match unfold from the stands as he awaits the all-clear from medical staff to resume his career following a serious knee complaint sustained during May’s play-off semi-finals. United attempted to make a fast start, with Billy Sharp and Sammon threatening to prise apart the opposition rearguard.
But those efforts were thwarted by a Shrewsbury team which, despite predictions to the contrary, clearly had designs of their own.
Indeed, it required a frantic clearance from Harris to prevent Zak Whitbread’s early header nestling in the back of George Long’s net.
It was not the only moment when the youngster would be left cruelly exposed.
Sammon appeared to have settled the nerves with clinical 17th minute finish when Jose Baxter tracked his run.
It was the 12th time United had taken the lead in a fixture this term and, on the 11 previous occasions, they had gone on to win them all. Not so this time as a combination of woeful defending and Shrewsbury’s ruthlessness prompted a dramatic, painful collapse.
Eight minutes later, Kaikai and Black reopened old wounds before Vernon heaped further misery on United’s embattled players.
The second-half was only three minutes old when James Collins put the game beyond their reach.
Hammond opened his United account after meeting Harris’ 65th minute free-kick before, deep into added time, substitute David Edgar saw a shot blocked by Jayson Leutwiler and Kieron Freeman dragged wide from a corner.
Sheffield United: Long, Freeman, Harris, Basham, Sharp, Baxter (Done 46), Collins (McEveley 46), Sammon, Reed (Edgar 46), Adams, Hammond. Not used: Howard, Coutts, Woolford, Campbell-Ryce.
Shrewsbury Town: Leutwiler, Whitbread, Grandison, Black (Lawrence 79), J Collins (Barnett 79), Kaikai, Brown, Gerrard, Vernon, Ogogo, Cole (Akpa Akpro 76). Not used: Whalley, McAlinden, Burton, Smith.
Referee: Richard Clark (Northumberland).