THE final count will not be complete until Monday but, just like the two main political parties in the most unpredictable General Election for a generation, Sheffield United are going to need a late dramatic swing in their favour to prevail.
Nathan Byrne’s stoppage-time winner for Swindon Town means the Blades have it all to do to reach Wembley on May 24 after a captivating first leg.
It was cruel on Nigel Clough’s men, who are now in danger of becoming the eighth United side to fail in the play-offs.
Not that all is lost. Far from it, with one crumb of comfort being that, over the 90 minutes, there was very little to choose between either side during an entertaining contest.
United started and finished the game looking the stronger side, even allowing for Byrne’s smash-and-grab winner.
In between those two spells in the ascendancy, Swindon enjoyed the better of the chances either side of the break and also missed a first-half penalty when Mark Howard denied Ben Gladwin.
Had that gone in, the Blades would be needing something approaching a landslide victory to reach the League One final.
As it is, the dream is still alive – even if it is going to take an almighty effort at the County Ground.
Down the years, Swindon have often sported blue on their travels. On Election night, however, the 20,890 crowd were denied a traditional ‘Reds v Blues’ battle with the Robins instead opting for a garish purple, white and black effort.
For the opening quarter, the team’s shirt was comfortably the brightest thing about the visitors as the Blades set the pace with some truly electric play.
With Jamie Murphy an early menace down the left and Steven Davies proving a handful up front, United tore into Mark Cooper’s men and got their just reward on 19 minutes.
Neat play involving Ryan Flynn and Chris Basham ended with Kieron Freeman drilling a first-time shot that Wes Foderingham could not keep out despite getting a hand to the ball.
Considering that by then referee Darren Bond had already rejected what looked a very strong appeal for a penalty, when Murphy’s cross was clearly handballed by Gladwin, and Davies had gone within an inch or two of connecting with an arrowed cross by Bob Harris, the lead was merited.
Swindon’s response, though, was impressive as, first, Jermaine Hylton came as agonisingly close as Davies had earlier to applying the final touch when Michael Smith had fired across goal. Then, as Harris blatantly tripped Byrne inside the area, the Robins were awarded a penalty that Howard saved brilliantly to his right from Gladwin.
Jay McEveley, reacting quicker than anyone else thanks to having raced into the area before the spot-kick had been taken, completed the clearance by heading back to Howard as a host of Swindon players tried in vain to reach the rebound.
Howard again came to United’s rescue seven minutes before the break to block a drilled shot from Byrne after Hylton had left McEveley trailing in his wake.
Hylton then had the first shot of the second half, McEveley bravely flinging himself at the ball to divert it behind.
The let-off, though, was only temporary.
From the resulting flag-kick taken by Byrne, Sam Ricketts, once of Hull City, rose high to power an unstoppable 51st-minute header beyond Howard’s grasp.
Buoyed to be back level, Swindon continued to dictate and Freeman had to thwart Ricketts with a last gasp tackle as the wideman had another attempt on goal.
That seemed to spark United back into life and for the final quarter it was the hosts who looked the more likely to make the breakthrough.
First, Chris Basham was presented with a difficult headed chance that he could only divert straight at Foderingham.
Then, after Davies had shot wide, Flynn jinked his way through only to copy team-mate Basham by finding Foderingham’s mid-riff.
Basham turned provider not long after with a tantalising cross headed wide by Matt Done, who was also unfortunate to see his scamper down the left flank abruptly halted by referee Bond’s nonsensical decision to award a free-kick to the Blades on halfway.
It was a poor error and one that proved costly for the hosts, as Byrne fired in a late, late winner to leave Clough’s men with it all to do.
Sheffield United: Howard; Freeman, Brayford (Scougall 46, Doyle 88), McEveley, Harris; Flynn, Coutts, Basham, Murphy; Holt (Done 74); S Davies. Unused substitutes: Alcock, McNulty, Turner, Adams.
Swindon Town: Foderingham; Thompson, Stephens, Turnbull, Ricketts; Byrne, Kasim, Gladwin (Swift 68), Luongo; Smith (Obika 90), Hylton (Williams 76). Unused substitutes: Barthram, Rodgers, Marshall, Belford.
Referee: D Bond (Lancashire).