Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough was left to pick the positives out of a frustrating afternoon which saw the Blades’ hunt for league success at Bramall Lane stretch to two months.
The Blades may have a mouth-watering League Cup semi-final against Tottenham waiting next month, but their hopes of automatic promotion out of League One have stalled due to their home form.
The last time United collected maximum points at the Lane was on October 21, when they beat Yeovil 2-0.
Against Walsall, United looked a shadow of the team in the opening 45 minutes which had brought Premier League Southampton to their knees in the Capital One Cup quarter-finals just four days earlier.
So when loan signing Chris O’Grady pounced to fire home in front of the Kop early in the second half, there was a sense of relief inside Bramall Lane.
But the Saddlers did what Saints failed to, by producing an equaliser when the impressive Tom Bradshaw was allowed to rise unchallenged and head home beyond a stranded Mark Howard.
Not even the introduction of striker Marc McNulty – who netted the winner against Southampton, but who was restricted to the bench by a slight injury – could inspire a late winner.
“The equaliser was the only downside of the day,” rued Clough. “A lot of effort went into Tuesday night, we know that, and we put a lot of effort in today.
“When we got our noses in front, we should have looked after the lead better.
“We were a bit unlucky (for their equaliser), we made three or four tackles in the centre of the pitch but it didn’t quite drop to us.
“But after that, when the ball went in, we should have got somebody near it,” added Clough, who also saw his side fail to hold on for victory at Fleetwood Town in the previous league game.
“We are not losing, that’s the good thing, I think it’s one out of nine. But we have to start turning these draws into wins, which we needed to do on a couple of occasions. We were 1-0 up at Fleetwood, 1-0 up today. We know we are pretty close.
“Usually it’s that first goal. That’s the frustrating part, we have got the first goal and just a lapse got them back in the game.”
The performance of O’Grady was one of the positives for the Blades, who occupy fifth place in League One, but are now eight points off second-placed MK Dons. “I was delighted with Chris O’Grady today,” said Clough. “I thought, apart from the goal, the back four defended well again.
“Also, Che Adams making his debut, you can see the potential, raw as it is. He has settled in lovely.
“We would have loved Marc McNulty to maybe start, or play a bit more, but he was carrying an injury.
“Louis Reed played ever so well against Southampton but he couldn’t make the 18 as he had a couple of knocks.
“When we are playing so many big games, cup games as well as league games, it’s going to be that sort of enforced rotation. Jamie Murphy looked a little bit tired, I think you could tell the difference of the fresh legs – Stefan Scougall, Chris O’Grady.”
United were not helped when they lost stand-in right-back Ryan Flynn at half-time, after he tweaked his hamstring.
With a Boxing Day trip to Port Vale, before Scunthorpe United visit Bramall Lane next Sunday, the right-back spot is a problem for Clough with Craig Alcock and Ben Davies also sidelined.
“Ryan just felt his hamstring. It just tightened up, it hasn’t gone, and we will assess him over the next couple of days.”
Asked if United may look to sign a right-back on loan when the transfer window re-opens next week, Clough replied: “We can’t do anything for the next two matches at least.
“We know Craig Alcock is not too far away, but the way Ryan Flynn has been playing there, we need him back as well.”
After the high of the Saints performance and victory, this game was always likely to fall into the category of “after the Lord Mayer’s parade”.
But Clough was not too despondent, and believes United just need to carry on picking up points and get through a busy January, which also sees the Blades visit another Premier League side, QPR, in the FA Cup.
He said: “It’s not going to always be sparkling, just look at the pitch, it’s cutting up a bit and is very difficult to play fluent football on at times. But I thought there was enough good stuff out there. I think the next six weeks are going to be a grind. There are a lot of big games for us, and a lot of expectation, which is fine.
“It’s important that we are not losing, I know we want to win, but it’s important we are not losing.”
Sheffield United: Howard, Flynn (McGahey 45), Basham, McEveley, Harris, Doyle, Murphy, Scougall, Baxter (McNulty 75), Adams (Cuvelier 84), O’Grady. Unused substitutes: Turner, McCarthy, Higdon, Wallace.
Walsall: O’Donnell, Purkiss, Downing, A Chambers, Henry, Baxendale (Forde 57), Cain, J Chambers, Cook (Benning 76), Sawyers (Grimes 85), Bradshaw. Unused substitutes: O’Connor, MacGillivray, Flanagan, Manset.
Referee: G Horwood (Chesire) (R Wootton).