Another trip to Walsall. Another frustrating result for Sheffield United.
Nigel Clough’s side appeared destined to end their near 11 year wait for a victory at the Banks’s Stadium when Jose Baxter pounced during the opening skirmishes of this proverbial match of two halves.
Instead they returned home having been forced to settle for a share of the spoils after Ashley Grimes ensured Walsall’s improved display after the interval did not go without reward.
Grimes’ introduction proved the turning point of an evening which ended with United still fifth in the League One table although the hosts were still indebted to Richard O’Donnell for spectacularly denying Ben Davies what would have been a dramatic late winner.
“That’s how close we are,” Clough said. “Inches, nothing more.
“It’s all about the small margins and the small details. Take care of those and we win the game.”
“Traditionally, this has been a difficult place to come for our club,” Clough added. “So, although we aren’t completely satisfied, it’s another point on the road.
“We should have gone on to win the game but it’s not far away. We know that and the lads know it too.”
Clough’s players are without a win in five outings and clean sheet away from Bramall Lane since November.
The longer that run continues, the more the nerves that surfaced towards the end of last night’s game will grow.
But top-six qualification remains, as their manager again emphasised, in United’s own hands.
“People can talk about what’s going on behind us,” Clough continued. “But we don’t.
“We’re only focused on ourselves and all of those who are behind us would rather be where we are at the moment.”
United have spent much of the past month chasing rather than controlling games.
But Baxter’s fine finish ensured they imposed themselves on this fixture in the eight minute of what became an increasingly tense.affair.
Anthony Forde was the architect of Walsall’s most promising moves until Jordy Hiwula wasted a glorious invitation to level just before the interval.
For the most part, during the first-half at least, United appeared more likely to extend their lead than concede.
Despite, as the contest unfolded, Walsall’s realisation that a defence comprised of three players under six foot tall could prove vulnerable in the air.
Nevertheless, United protected Mark Howard’s net with the same courage Jay McEveley showed by taking part less than two weeks after aggravating a long-standing shoulder complaint.
Walsall pressed and probed, particularly during a tense second-half.
James O’Connor could, indeed should, have levelled following a set-piece move just past the hour.
But United pieced together several promising moves themselves with Baxter and Jason Holt both testing Richard O’Donnell’s positioning and bravery.
Grimes entrance, however, equipped Walsall with a cutting edge they had previously lacked and he made his presence felt by heading home Ben Purkiss’ centre.
Only leaders Bristol City and Swindon Town, both beaten by United since the turn of the year, boasted better records against the division’s leading clubs than Dean Smith’s side ahead of yesterday’s fixture.
Having fallen behind, it was an honour they were not prepared to surrender without a fight.
Grimes had barely broken sweat when he levelled before hitting the woodwork with an excellent curling effort.
But Davies came agonisingly close to giving United what, with only seconds remaining would surely have been an unssailable lead, when he unleashed a vicious drive after powering a free-kick against the Walsall wall.
O’Donnell had other ideas and somehow prevented the ball from reaching its target.
“It was a superb save,” Clough said. “And, if that goes in, then everyone goes home happy.”
On paper, the 36th match of their season appeared a straight-forward affair for visiting team missing numerous key players, including Howard, Stefan Scougall and Chris Basham, through injury or suspension. In practise, however, it was anything but.
Despite languishing in 16th place before kick-off, Walsall entered the game boasting an excellent record against teams from the top-half of the table, preparing for a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final against City this weekend and having already beaten the visitors on home soil this term.
With a fully fit squad at his disposal, Smith made only two changes, suggesting the club’s first ever visit to Wembley had not entirely taken precendence over attempting to beat opponents who recalled goalkeeper Howard following injury.
Baxter and Holt also featured after being named on the bench at Scunthorpe three days earlier. Substitute Steven Davies and Paul Coutts were both omitted due to injury.
Baxter immediately made his presence felt with a memorable eighth minute finish which left O’Donnell, who moments earlier had produced a superb save to palm away a Matt Done volley, grasping at thin air.
Howard’s opposite number, previously of Sheffield Wednesday, did well to claw the former Rochdale marksman’s volley to safety but, when Baxter picked his spot perfectly from 25 yards, was powerless to prevent the ball nestling in the bottom corner of the net.
Holt nearly followed suit when he met Jamie Murphy’s centre only to lose his footing while Bob Harris also whipped a dangerous cross into O’Donnell’s penalty area which Kieron Freeman, marshalled by Malvind Benning, glanced wide.
Although Forde had sent Howard scampering across his line during the opening exchanges, Walsall’s possession did not create another chance of note until Hiwula combined with Cook in the 39th minute.
Romaine Sawyers present Freeman with another sight of goal midway through the first half when he inexplicably opted to take a touch on the edge of the box rather than simply hack clear.
The United full-back sliced high and wide while Hiwula should also have done better when he climbed above John Brayford, again deployed as a make-shift centre-half, just before the break.
Howard was a relieved man when the youngster, on loan from Manchester City, miscalculated his angles after meeting Cook’s pass.
O’Connor headed Forde’s 62nd minute corner wide as Walsall began to apply increasing pressure and there was another scare, again from a deal ball situation, when Paul Downing went close.
Instead, it was Grimes who restored parity 10 minutes later before seeing another attempt rebound off the woodwork.
“It was a great header,” Smith said. “Ashley has got a lot of nous about him and he showed that out there.
“We want to win everytime we go out there on the pitch but I couldn’t ask for anymore from the players.
“We know we were out there playing against a really, really good team and we more than competed.”
WALSALL: O’Donnell 7, Purkiss 6, O’Connor 6, Downing 6 , A Chambers 6, Mantom 6 (Cain 89), Sawyers 6, Benning 6, Cook 6 (Grimes 69), Forde 7, Hiwula 7 (Bakayoko 85). Not used: Baxendale, J Chambers, Flanagan, MacGillivray.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Harris 7, Brayford 8, Doyle 6, Murphy 6, Baxter 7, Done 7 (Flynn 79), McEveley 7, Reed 6 (S Davies 73), Freeman 6, Holt 7 (B Davies 87). Not used: Alcock, McNulty, Adams, Turner.
REFEREE: R Lewis (Shropshire), 6
GOALS: Baxter (8), Grimes (72)
CAUTIONS: Hiwula (45), Doyle (45), Bakayoko (88)
RED CARDS: None
PLAYER-WATCH: He might not have delivered the evening’s most eye-catching performance but Jay McEveley certainly produced its most courageous having played despite requiring an injection to numb the pain of a shoulder injury.
VIEWPOINT: Sheffield United were the better team in the first-half. Walsall were the better team in the second. So both teams will feel they could have taken more from this game. The visitors nearly did but Richard O’Donnell produced a superb save to deny substitute Ben Davies.