Preston North End 3 Sheffield United 1: Agony nearly at an end as Blades go down at Preston
This nightmare of a season has gone on long enough and manager Micky Adams is already planning for life in League One.
Adams sent two more senior players packing ahead of the game, namely defender Nyron Nosworthy and striker Marcus Bent, and handed full debuts to teenagers Harry Maguire and Jordan Slew. A third youngster, striker Danny Philliskirk, came off the bench.
Poor Nick Montgomery and Stephen Quinn, the only survivors from the Blades side relegated from the Premier League four years, looked heart-broken at the final whistle.
For them, this experience is even harder to swallow.
Montgomery said: “ It is virtually impossible now but as long as it is mathematically possible we have got to stay positive because the fans deserve it.
“Everyone wrote us off a couple of weeks ago yet we still had the belief in the squad that we could get the results – but this is another big blow.
“There are quite a few lads in that dressing room who really care about this club and who are hurting. Obviously the fans are hurting too.
“But if you don’t put your chances away and you concede poor goals you are never going to win a football game and, unfortunately, that’s been the story of our season.”
Former Blades loanee Keith Treacy scored twice for Preston before Slew pulled a goal back on his debut.
However, Bjorn Helge-Riise and Darius Henderson were both guilty of spurning gilt-edged chances before substitute Nathan Ellington sealed the win for Preston in the dying minutes.
The teams had emerged from the tunnel before the game with the ‘The Great Escape’ playing over the tannoy – and a more fitting tune would have been hard to find.
Occupying the bottom two spots in the table, both teams require an escape of epic proportions to pull out of the relegation zone.
The Blades lined-up in a 4-4-2 with Maguire at centre-back and Slew partnering Darius Henderson in attack.
Maguire’s 6ft 4in frame came in handy for combatting the aerial threat of Preston striker Chris Brown and the Blades youngsters won the vast majority of his headers early on.
Slew grew in confidence alongside Darius Henderson in attack and fully deserved his goal.
After a nervy start, the Blades found spaces down the Preston right but their finishing was poor..
Slew showed his hunger by forcing a good low save from Iain Turner but both Quinn and Riise wasted opportunities before the break.
Brown might have scored for Preston but Neill Collins did just enough to force him to shoot wide.
Over the last few weeks, the confidence of the Blades has visibly drained and there were frequently moments during this game where players showed a reluctance to take the ball on.
Winger Riise, on loan from Fulham, has been one of the few players to emerge with any credit in recent weeks but on Saturday even the Norwegian international had lost his mojo.
Unmarked at the far post, Riise looked nailed on to break the deadlock after great work by Slew but somehow turned the ball onto the crossbar.
It was the turning point in the game and, six minutes later, Treacy had scored for Preston with a 30-yard free-kick that bounced its way past goalkeeper Steve Simonsen.
Treacy struck the post with another free-kick as the Blades wobbled but Montgomery was unlucky not to equalise when his shot was saved by Turner.
Referee Steve Tanner booked Quinn for allegedly diving under pressure in the area but it was by no way a clear-cut decision.
When Treacy scored his second of the game with a blistering 25-yard angled drive, it looked all over. Once again, the Blades had contributed to their own downfall – a mistake from defender Shane Lowry leading to the corner that brought the goal.
A sizeable chunk of the away following had already headed for the exits when Slew’s goal suddenly offered a ray of hope.
The youngster tucked the ball home from the edge of the area after his initial shot was blocked following a promising run.
Those who stayed to the bitter end were put through agony as Preston wobbled and the Blades failed to take advantage.
Henderson, just as last week against Middlesbrough, was unable to convert what looked a routine chance for a Championship striker. Eight yards out, in the centre of goal, he struck the post with the goal at his mercy. Bad luck? You make your own luck in this game.
Ellington came on and wrapped it up for Preston in the 89th minute, but he owed a huge thanks to striker Iain Hume’s run and unselfish pass.