THE only thing missing from a pulsating Yorkshire derby was a dramatic last-gasp winner – and Valley Parade’s largest crowd of the season almost got that.
Ninety five minutes of an absorbing contest packed full of incident and bone-shuddering challenges had been played when James Hanson rose highest amid a goalmouth melee to meet Billy Knott’s corner.
The striker powered a trademark header goalwards and, for the second home game running, Bradford City looked to have snatched all three points at the finish.
Then, though, Jose Baxter –straining every part of his 5ft 10ins frame – rose to head the ball off the line and ensure Sheffield United’s valiant second-half fightback was rewarded.
The Blades, trailing to goals from James Meredith and Devante Cole, had seemed down and out as the game approached the final quarter.
Out of very little, however, the match turned as a seemingly innocuous throw-in led to Meredith, under pressure from Chris Basham, heading into his own net and, suddenly, the visitors were back in it.
Four minutes later, United were level thanks to Billy Sharp’s fifth goal in as many league appearances to set up a frantic finale that – at both ends – came so close to producing a dramatic winner.
First, Neill Collins was denied by a fantastic save from Jones one minute into stoppage time. Then, at the other end, Baxter did his bit to keep out Hanson and, immediately, referee Neil Swarbrick blew for full time – much to the annoyance of Phil Parkinson.
“I was left frustrated by the referee that he didn’t let us take another corner,” said the Bantams’ manager. “We had it down as being five minutes into stoppage time, he said it was five minutes and 13 seconds.
“I asked, ‘What about adding on 30 seconds for the substitution?’ He got that terribly wrong. We had just had the momentum of Hanson’s header. Let us take the corner.”
Any arrivals to Bradford yesterday morning would have found negotiating their way around the city centre a tad tricky thanks to the staging of the annual SkyRide having led to a host of road closures.
For the opening hour or so at Valley Parade, the visitors from Sheffield found it equally troublesome to plot a path towards the Bradford goal.
It took, in fact, until just after the hour mark for Jones to come under any threat on his debut and, even then, Collins headed wastefully over from Baxter’s corner.
United had switched to 4-3-3 at half-time after being over-run during the opening 45 minutes to such an extent that City could feel hard done by to boast only a one-goal lead.
With Lee Evans and Gary Liddle dominating the centre of midfield as wingers, Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall, provided a constant threat down the flanks, City were in full control.
The home side’s goal, though, came from an unlikely source, Meredith having previously found the net 115 games earlier in October, 2012.
Despite that lack of goalscoring pedigree, the full-back finished with aplomb by, first, anticipating a miscued header from David Edgar and then bravely nicking the ball over Mark Howard just a second before being clattered by the Blades goalkeeper.
Meredith’s first strike since a 3-1 win over Cheltenham in League Two was just reward for an enterprising start by the Bantams, who had earlier been denied when Howard blocked Rory McArdle’s flick from Lee Evans’s free-kick.
United also had a let-off when the visitors allowed an in-swinging corner by Evans to flash across the face of goal with a host of City players unable to apply the all-important touch.
Things went from bad to worse for Nigel Adkins’s men two minutes into the second half as more calamitous defending from Edgar allowed Devante Cole to double the home side’s advantage.
Again it was an attempted clearance by the former Huddersfield Town loanee that went wrong as the ball cannoned into the net off Cole’s leg.
At this stage, United looked set for a third consecutive defeat in a little over a week only for the 1,479 travelling fans to be given hope on 66 minutes when Basham’s header looped into the net with some help from Meredith.
Four minutes later, the game was level thanks to Sharp, released by Baxter, tapping in the rebound after his first effort had been saved by Jones.
That led to a pulsating finale for Valley Parade’s biggest league crowd of the season as play raged from one end to the other. Marc McNulty fired wide after being found by Conor Sammon for the Blades before Marshall cut in from the right flank and curled a shot that went just wide.
Jones brilliantly denied Collins in the first of five stoppage time minutes as few in the Valley Parade crowd of 19,317 risked an early exit for fear of missing a repeat of Cole’s dramatic winner at home to Port Vale three weeks earlier. It almost came, too, with it needing Baxter’s awareness to ensure honours ended even with that dramatic, late header off the line.
Adkins said: “We showed character and well done to the players for that. Bradford did really well in the first half and put us under a lot of pressure. But we got the two goals and we were the ones pressing for the winner. Then, Jose heads one off the line.
“Overall, therefore, I would say both sides were happy not to lose because we both had opportunities to win it – Bradford first half, us in the second.”