THE warning signs were there from the moment Sheffield United’s players took their first look at the pitch.
Not only was there barely a blade of grass within 40 or so yards as the visiting party ventured on to the field, but a large area immediately in front of the main stand had been cordoned off.
The tape lent Boundary Park the look of a crime scene, as if the police were preserving evidence with the only thing missing being the chalk outline of a body.
By full time, that pre-match image had proved pretty prophetic with plenty of crimes against football having been committed in an ugly game that was perhaps best summed up by Chris Wilder.
“They booted it better than us first half,” said the Blades’ manager, only half-joking, about a 1-1 draw that extended his side’s unbeaten run into double figures. “We booted it better second half.”
Wilder had spent the build-up drilling into his side just how difficult conditions were likely to be but, the Sheffield United chief conceded afterwards that the players had still been shocked by the poor state of the surface.
“Players today are just not used to pitches like this,” he added. “They come through Academies and play on training grounds that are immaculate.
“In my career, playing on pitches like this came natural. We were on dustbowls by the end of a season.
“I was part of the ‘Harry’ Bassett side that ran over opposing teams during the run-in and that was because we continually played the ball forward, won second balls and got it out wide or into the box.
“But our players have not been brought up like that. Kieron Freeman is used to playing round corners and trying that extra pass to get us in.”
They booted it better than us first half. We booted it better second half.Sheffield United manager, Chris Wilder.
This was no day for frills or taking risks. Wilder made that much clear to John Fleck midway through the first half after the midfielder had unwisely attempted a pass back to Simon Moore that the goalkeeper had subsequently sliced into the crowd.
Fleck, suitably chastised, never did it again. Nor did any of his team-mates, whose first, second and third thoughts were to get the ball forward as quickly as possible and hope for the best.
Such a pragmatic approach aped that of Oldham and the upshot was poor fare for the 8,448 crowd, more than half of whom had travelled from South Yorkshire.
Those hordes from Sheffield had little to cheer until five minutes after half-time, by which time their side were already trailing to the one incisive passing move of the afternoon.
Paul Green, once of Doncaster Rovers and Leeds United, opened up the Blades with a delightful pass that released right-back Josh Law. He, in turn, looked up before drilling a low cross for Tope Obadeyi to convert from close range.
Considering the state of the pitch and John Sheridan’s Latics having gone into the contest boasting the third lowest goals-against column in League One, United needed a quick response.
It came five minutes after the restart, Jay O’Shea rifling in an unstoppable shot after latching on to James Hanson’s knockdown. “The ball was in the air so I didn’t have to trust the pitch – if it had been on the ground I might not have had a shot,” admitted the Irishman about his second goal since joining from Chesterfield in January.
Once level, the visitors had a couple of gilt-edged opportunities to claim all three points late on but, first, Billy Sharp fired wastefully over before Connor Ripley boldly denied United’s top scorer his 27th goal of the season.
Ripley’s stoppage-time save meant honours deservedly ended even on an afternoon that, while far from being likely to live long in the memory, was one that left Wilder immensely proud.
“We might not have won the game but it was one of the more pleasing afternoons for me this season because we battled,” he added.
“I made that point to the players as they came off the pitch. They were a bit flat, but I stressed how important this point could be.”
United’s draw coupled with Bolton Wanderers beating Shrewsbury Town means the gap between the top two in League One has been cut to four points.
Third-placed Fleetwood Town, meanwhile, sit a further six points adrift of Wilder’s table-toppers and the Blades’ manager had a blunt message for both of his side’s nearest rivals ahead of their own upcoming trips to Boundary Park.
“Fleetwood and Bolton have both got to come here,” he added. “All the best with that, lads.
“It certainly won’t be easy, as we found out, and they may have to play a certain way.
“Someone was having a right pop at me from behind the dugout, saying we were a long ball team and things like that.
“I just shook my head at him. Has he been on Mars or something?
“He obviously hasn’t seen us this season. Playing like we did against Oldham did not come naturally to us, but it was the best way to tackle such a poor pitch.”
Fleetwood are due at Boundary Park on April 8 and Phil Parkinson’s Bolton a week later, by which time the finishing line will be firmly in sight for all the promotion hopefuls.
“I’d imagine they would be delighted to come away from Oldham with something,” added Wilder. “If they get the wins, fair play to them. But this is not going to be an easy place for anyone to come.”