Sheffield United know better than most that the road from League One to the Championship is littered with potholes.
A team which has tasted defeat in the play-offs three times since being relegated from English football’s second tier four years ago, stumbled headfirst into another hazardous trap against Colchester last night.
The visitors, claiming their first win of the new season, looked anything but relegation fodder as they raced into a two-goal lead courtesy of George Moncur’s brace although, it must be said, their grip on the game owed as much to United’s failings as it did the prowess of Tony Humes’ side.
Billy Sharp, scoring for the second time in as many outings, provided a lifeline from the penalty spot which Nigel Adkins’ charges duly grasped when Martyn Woolford restored parity.
United sensed an unlikely victory could be in the offing but Sordell had other ideas and scored Colchester’s third with a deflected shot.
There was more drama when United were awarded their second penalty of the evening during the closing stages but on this occasion Sharp, who had been fouled by George Elokobi, saw his attempt saved after Colchester’s captain had been dismissed.
The fixture was eventful but, from Adkins’ perspective, for all the wrong reasons.
Tentative going forward and exposed at the back, United’s problems could initially be attributed to a midfield which found itself outnumbered and overrun throughout a fractious first-half. Colchester, with Sordell’s pace and the industry of Moncur, were perfectly equipped to exploit this numerical advantage.
United raised their game enough following the interval to restore parity but Adkins, who by his own admission is prepared to gamble in pursuit of points, will have serious grievances about the technical aspects of their performance. The knowledge they possess the strength of character claw themselves, albeit briefly, back into a contest which should have been beyond reach will provide precious little comfort following this desperately disappointing display. United will still back themselves to be challenging for promotion come May but, on yesterday’s evidence at least, there are still flaws in their armoury which must be addressed. Potentially, as Adkins alluded beforehand, during the emergency loan window.
Bramall Lane had been an unhappy hunting ground for Colchester squads ever since Bobby Roberts led them to victory in a league fixture here in October 1979. With only one victory to show during the intervening period - when goals from Neil Danns and Gareth Williams saw them reach the fourth round of the FA Cup at United’s expense - Humes’ players made the journey north more in hope than expectation. United, though, were in generous mood and gifted them the lead - Moncur making no mistake from inside the penalty area - thanks to a woeful start. The early breakthrough provided Colchester with the type of foothold Humes must have dreamed of and which, judging by his demeanour on the touchline, filled Adkins with dread. Even more concerning than the sight of Moncur breaking the deadlock, however, was the effect it seemed to have on United’s players. Passes continued to go astray, until Sharp reduced the deficit, with alarming regularity and it was no surprise when Moncur, despite appearing suspiciously offside, double Colchester’s advantage. This was United at their fractious worst and it took Sharp’s 50th minute penalty, won by Jay McEveley, to inject a semblance of cohesion and purpose into their game.
United made only one change to the 11 which had begun last weekend’s home defeat by Bury with Jose Baxter, available again following suspension, replacing Louis Reed. Nevertheless, despite Adkins’ consistent selections, they made a pretty ragged start with possession conceded in dangerous areas on numerous occasions during the opening exchanges. Colchester took full advantage of one such mistake committed by Baxter, in the seventh minute when Sordell’s pass sent Moncur darting clean through on goal. The former Everton midfielder nearly redeemed himself moments later by orchestrating the set-piece move which saw Woolford flash just wide of the far post.
Mark Howard, who had been powerless to deny Moncur his third of the campaign, prevented United’s troubles deepening midway through the first-half when he palmed another effort, this time from Sordell, away to safety. It proved to be only a temporary reprieve when Moncour scored again in the 23rd minute and Sordell went close on the counter-attack after McEveley had seen a header scrambled clear.
McEveley was instrumental in the move which saw United reduce the deficit five minutes after the break when, surging into the area, he was tripped by Gavin Massey.
Sharp’s first attempt was saved but, with Jones advancing way off his line, assistant referee Christopher Akers correctly called for the kick to be retaken and the striker, who scooped wide before Woolford levelled, made no mistake with his second.
Substitute Marc McNulty had also gone close before the former Millwall winger’s intervention and, as the action became increasingly stretched, Howard performed wonders to parry away an Owen Garvan free-kick.
Sordell could, indeed should, have edged Colchester back in front after escaping his marker but shot straight at Howard. Humes wheeled away in frustration but his mood changed when Sordell’s effort wrong-footed Howard after taking a wicked deflection and nestled in the back of the net. Elokobi received a straight red card after conceding the penalty which presented Sharp with the chance to level but Jones guessed correctly and saved.
Sheffield United: Howard, Freeman, Basham, Sharp, Baxter, Collins, Woolford (Scougall 84), Sammon (McNulty 55), McEveley, Campbell-Ryce (Higdon 88), Edgar. Not used: Alcock, Reed, Long, K Wallace.
Colchester United: Jones, Garvan, Briggs, Edwards, Elokobi, Moncur, Massey, Eastman, Eastman, Vincent-Young, Harriott (Ambrose 74), Sordell (Bonne 90). Not used: Wynter, Kent, Szmodics, Sembie-Ferris, Parish.
Referee: Ricky Wootton (West Yorkshire)