BACK in the early Nineties, Dave Bassett famously staged Sheffield United’s Christmas party amid the sweltering heat of August one year in an attempt to end his side’s tendency to wait until the festive season to start racking up the wins.
Maybe Nigel Clough could try a similar piece of amateur psychology to shock United’s current players out of what has become a first-half malaise when it comes to scoring goals.
For the eighth time in 10 home league games this season, United last night fired a blank in the opening 45 minutes against Milton Keynes Dons.
On many occasions, the Blades have, of course, been able to overcome these first-half struggles to snatch vital points in dramatic fashion.
Against the Dons, however, they were unable to produce one of their customary late, late shows with it instead being Karl Robinson’s side who snatched all three points.
Dele Alli struck the vital blow, the highly-rated midfielder firing in from close range on 86 minutes to exact a modicum of revenge on behalf of a Dons side who had been knocked out of the Capital One Cup by one of the Blades’ trademark last gasp winners in October. For United, it meant a continuation of a worrying recent run at Bramall Lane with the last four league outings in S2 having yielded just two points.
In a contest with the potential to either close the gap between fourth and fifth place or extend it to six points, both sides had unsurprisingly started in a cagey fashion.
There were, though, still plenty of promising situations to get the 17,030 crowd who braved a cold Sheffield night to their feet but precious few ended with either goalkeeper being tested.
The Blades enjoyed the better of those moments in the first half and were especially unlucky not to break the deadlock on 20 minutes when Michael Doyle picked out Bob Harris with an exquisite cross-field pass.
The full-back, who had ghosted into the Dons’ penalty area with no marker in tow, then side-footed the ball back across the face of goal where Chris Basham was a fraction of a second too late to convert at the back post.
Another cross that deserved better than the ball running dead came via the right boot of Jamie Murphy but, again, the Blades were slightly too slow to react.
Chris O’Grady was one of those on his heels when Murphy’s cross came in and the debutant fluffed another opening when picked out by Jamal Campbell-Ryce, the loanee’s first touch being so heavy that the visitors were able to clear.
Not long after, O’Grady’s frustration was compounded by a recurrence of the calf injury that had delayed his debut and he was out of the action. In his absence, United had one more decent opening when Paddy McCarthy headed over from close range while perhaps the Dons’ best moment of the half came when Alli looked to have jinked his way through only for Jay McEveley to execute an inch-perfect tackle to avert the danger.
This failure to test either goalkeeper with anything but routine saves or catches finally came to an end five minutes into the second half when Stefan Scougall was denied by David Martin.
The Dons goalkeeper also had to get down well to keep out a Murphy snapshot.
At the other end, the introduction of one-time Huddersfield Town and Sheffield Wednesday loanee Beink Afobe pepped up the visitors and he was unfortunate to see Mark Howard beat away an improvised shot a moment after Ryan Flynn had been deceived by a sublime piece of skill.
United had another escape just when Antony Kay’s header was cleared off the line by Murphy. That meant the game was goalless as it entered the final quarter, which this season has been when Clough’s men have been at their most dangerous.
Sure enough, it seemed that the breakthrough had been made 13 minutes from time when McCarthy smashed the ball into the net after Basham had headed against the post.
The celebrations, however, were curtailed by an offside flag against the substitute when meeting Harris’s free-kick.
That disappointment then turned to despair on 86 minutes when Alli finished from close range after Howard had done well to block a free kick from Danny Green, who was sent off in stoppage time for time-wasting after picking up a second booking.
It meant all three points were heading back down the M1 in the safe-keeping of League One’s top goalscorers to leave United needing to find a solution for their home travails and fast.
Sheffield United: Howard; Flynn, McCarthy, McEveley, Harris; Campbell-Ryce, Basham (McGahey 86), Doyle, Murphy; Scougall (Baxter 81), O’Grady (McNulty 23). Unused substitutes: McNulty, Higdon, Reed, Turner, Adams.
MK Dons: Martin; Spence, Kay, McFadzean, Hodson; Potter, Alli; Baker, Reeves (Afobe 55), Powell (Green 69); Grigg (Flanagan 89). Unused substitutes: Bowditch, McLoughlin, Baldock.
Referee: L Collins (Surrey).