Yet Romain Vincelot’s headed equaliser from a corner in the eighth minute of stoppage time did not stop James Wallace hailing the Blades’ display as a ‘promotion performance.’
Half of Sheffield’s goals this season have come in the last 10 minutes of matches and they were at it again against Orient.
They had battered away at the visitors continuously throughout the second half but looked like being sunk by Jay Simpson’s 38th-minute opener following a gaffe from goalkeeper Mark Howard.
However, Orient’s spirited resistance was broken in the 90th minute as central defender Paddy McCarthy slammed the ball into the roof of the net and it looked like victory for the Blades when striker Marc McNulty headed home from fellow substitute Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s cross in two minutes later.
It looked like being a replica finish to the last home game against Gillingham but the Blades switched off, leaving Shaun Batt free down the left to win a corner, which Jack Price sent over for Vincelot to race in from the edge of the area and head home unmarked to preserve Orient’s unbeaten away record.
It was a goal which could easily have clinched the manager’s job on a permanent basis for Kevin Nugent, operating in a caretaker role since Russell Slade left for Cardiff.
Blades midfield man Wallace, an unfortunate contender for the miss of the season award, admitted: “It does seem like a defeat. That second goal overshadowed our performance. It’s the best performance we’ve had all season but the lads are devastated about Orient’s late goal. That performance was a promotion performance. The team togetherness, everyone fighting, everyone backing each other up, battling for the second ball and the best attacking performance we have had. The general performance today was brilliant I thought.”
Wallace’s miss from a yard out had come near the start of the Blades’ second-half onslaught –Orient losing Jobi McAnuff in the 75th minute to a second yellow card following a retaliatory challenge on Craig Alcock – spooning the ball over the bar after Jose Baxter’s low cross had deflected off Price and rebounded back across goal off the inside of the far post.
Wallace admitted: “I probably couldn’t do that again. It was the sitter of the season. It was harder to miss wasn’t it? I was hoping to score my first goal for Sheffield United in front of the Kop but the ball was slightly behind me and I thought the keeper might have got it but I just stuck a foot out and it went over the bar. Maybe next time it will go in the net.
“It happens and the fact that I was in there is a positive thing for me because I need to add that to my game, getting in the box, which is something the gaffer has been encouraging me to do. Today I did that but I missed the chance. I’ll get over it and go again on Saturday.”
Howard was another Blade who would have been embarrassed after a cross from the left rebounded off his chest, allowing Bradley Pritchard to tee up the tap-in for Simpson.
Prior to that goal, the Blades’ new-look defence had been largely untroubled, McCarthy and Jay McEveley replacing axed pair Neil Collins and Harrison McGahey as the centre-backs with Alcock and Bob Harris the full-backs.
Baxter also took another step towards rehabilitation from hamstring trouble, operating as the sole striker and almost netting twice in the early stages, running on to delightful balls down the channels.
It was his replacement, McNulty, who had a bigger impact, being denied by a combination of the post and the goalkeeper in the 87th minutes and heading against the bar a minute later before his stoppage-time goal.
Alcock also had a bullet-header cleared off the line and Campbell-Ryce was denied a penalty as he went down going past Elliot Omozusi. There were other half-chances in a flurry of incidents, though Orient’s willingness to put bodies on the line had to be admired.
On another day, the Blades could have had six and manager Nigel Clough believes that day is not far off.
However, it is the Blades’ habit of conceding first which most concerns them and Wallace continued: “We can’t keep doing it because it eventually bites you in the bum but if we keep putting in performances like that we will win more games than we lose or draw.
“It is a positive to have the mentality to get back in games when we go behind but we need to stop conceding goals and start taking the lead early. I think we are much better and positive team for it when we do.
“The gaffer told us to keep our heads and not let the result bother us because that was our best performance. He was happy with us, the only thing he was unhappy with was the goal in the last few seconds which he said was amateurish on our part.
“We are getting there as a team and we are gelling more. Our attitude is second to none, everyone works hard for each other, and the ability is starting to come through.”
Sheffield United: Howard, Alcock, McCarthy, McEveley, Harris; Flynn, Wallace (Campbell-Ryce 72), Doyle, Murphy, Scougall (Basham 73); Baxter (McNulty 61). Unused substitutes: Davies, McGahey, Reed, Turner.
Leyton Orient: Woods, Cuthbert, Clarke, Lowry, Omozusi; Price; Simpson (Dagnall 69), Pritchard (Batt 90), Vincelot, McAnuff; Henderson (Bartley 84). Unused substitutes: Lee, Kashket, Grainger, Ling.
Referee: A Haines (Tyne & Wear).