WHAT a difference a weekend makes. On Friday, a hard-fought victory at fellow promotion challengers Tranmere Rovers suggested Sheffield United possess both the brains and the brawn to take them back to the Championship.
But yesterday, it went from Good Friday to frustrating Monday at Bramall Lane. Just 72 hours after their triumph at Prenton Park, United failed to break down a stubborn Carlisle United side and had to be content with a point.
United manager Danny Wilson summed up the third goalless draw in succession at Bramall Lane as “frustrating” and admitted that his side’s lack of firepower was a concern as the race for promotion enters the final straight.
But he also insisted that his side remain in a “great position” and that they are not resigned to another play-off campaign just yet.
“You’ve got to be concerned when you’re not scoring goals or winning your home matches, of course,” said Wilson.
“All our best results this season have been away, and maybe that’s because there’s a bit of anxiousness here. But that’s understandable. What we have to do is turn that into a positive, and not get too worried about it.
“We’ve got to start breaking teams down, but we can’t get too anxious or disappointed if we don’t. We’re still in a great position. There’s always people that will never be happy, but we’re realistic. We just have to make sure we maximise that position.”
The draw did send United up to fourth but, combined with Doncaster Rovers’ win earlier in the day, they now trail their Yorkshire neighbours by six points.
After victory at Tranmere, United would have fancied three more points against Carlisle, who travelled to Sheffield in 17th place. But in a game that promised much but ultimately delivered little, the stubborn visitors did not let United have things all their own way.
Carlisle had notable chances of their own, before Sean O’Hanlon’s dismissal for a second caution 15 minutes from time realistically ended all hopes of an away victory.
From then on it became a backs-to-the-wall performance as United, buoyed by a vociferous home crowd, enjoyed a late surge of pressure but, on the balance of play, United goalkeeper George Long was the busier of the two.
Indeed, teenager Long had to be at his athletic best to first parry away the impressive Andy Welsh’s left-foot shot, and then push Liam Noble’s effort onto the post.
Earlier, the ever-willing Kevin McDonald had tested visiting goalkeeper Mark Gillespie but United, full of industry, appeared to lack the touch of invention needed to break the deadlock.
Dominic Poleon, struggling with a shin injury, and Matt Hill, who suffered double vision after blocking a fierce shot with his face, were both withdrawn at half-time for Jamie Murphy and Danny Higginbotham – but still United couldn’t force a way through.
The profligate Jonathan Forte was guilty of squandering two of United’s best opportunities in front of goal, first miscuing his attempt after good work from substitute Joe Ironside, and then lacking the killer instinct to lob Gillespie after a through-ball from Tony McMahon.
“It was a system set up to frustrate us, but we did get chances,” added Wilson.
“We just failed to take them, and if we had it would have changed the complexion of the game. We just didn’t have that little bit of luck that we sometimes need.”
After Saturday’s trip to Walsall, United face a trio of games that could make or break their season. “We’ve just got to look to the next game now – what else can we do?” added Wilson, whose side face Crawley, Swindon and Brentford in the space of seven days.
McMahon received his 10th booking and will sevre a two-match ban.
Sheffield United: Long, McMahon, Maguire, Collins, Hill (Higginbotham 45), Poleon (Murphy 45), Doyle, McDonald, Robson, Forte, Kitson (Ironside 62). Unused substitutes: Coyne, Westlake, Porter, McFadzean.
Carlisle United: Gillespie, Simek, Livesey, O’Hanlon, Mustoe, McGovern (83), Berrett, Thirlwell, Noble, Welsh (Murphy 77), Miller Unused substitutes: Collin, Loy, Cadamarteri, Potts, Beck.
Referee: Keith Hill (Hertfordshire).