SO near yet so far away.
For nearly four months, Sheffield United’s destiny had rested in their own hands but now, after a fortnight they will want to forget, the Blades are likely to need the play-offs to win promotion.
With neighbours Sheffield Wednesday winning away at Brentford in the afternoon, anything other than victory over Stevenage early evening on Saturday was going to spell bad news for the Blades.
The game proved to be one of the most nail-biting that Bramall Lane has witnessed in years, watched by over 30,000, the club’s biggest gate of the season, but ultimately it ended in failure.
Although the Blades fought back from a two-goal deficit to snatch a draw, the result leaves neighbours Wednesday one point ahead in second with one game to play.
Imagine a horse leading the Grand National and falling at the final fence, a sprinter dropping the baton just yards from the winning line at the Olympics, or a boxer getting caught on the chin by a last-round sucker punch when a points victory was on the cards.
That is how the Blades are feeling now after surrendering their advantage so late in the day.
With in-form Owls at home to relegated Wycombe next weekend, it is going to take one major shock for them to slip up.
And the Blades know that, regardless of the plaudits they have won, the football they have played, and the lead they have enjoyed this season, it may now be the lottery of the play-offs that decides their fate.
Manager Danny Wilson described the decision to play this game at 5.20pm as ‘unfair’ on rivals Wednesday but the Blades were definitely under more pressure by kick-off time.
Home supporters had also turned out in force hoping for a ‘promotion party’ but the Owls’ 2-1 victory put a stop to that idea.
It was now a case of getting the victory to return to pole position – but it was not to be.
The absence of striker Ched Evans, jailed 10 days ago for rape, again proved hugely significant.
With the injured Will Hoskins also missing and striker Richard Cresswell deemed fit enough only to make the bench, on-loan winger Michael O’Halloran, 21, made his first start for the club in attack.
There were just 53 seconds gone when the young striker failed to get his head on Stephen Quinn’s cross that was demanding to be put into the net.
The passion of the home crowd inspired rather then intimidated the visitors, who also needed a victory to maintain a play-off push.
Midfielder Luke Freeman was always a threat, running at defenders and capable of shooting from distance.
And striker Patrick Agyemang was a muscular presence in attack who made life hard for his opponents.
After a spell of intense pressure, Stevenage took a 31st-minute lead and stunned the home crowd into silence.
Agyemang was sent sprinting down the flank after Lee Williamson was caught in possession and, when he delivered a low centre into the box, Harry Maguire’s tackle on Joel Byrom sent the ball past goalkeeper Steve Simonsen.
A succession of shots flashed towards the Blades goal as Stevenage tightened their hold on the game.
The mood of the home crowd darkened, especially when Stevenage supporters began chanting “We’re going up with the Wednesday.”
Jeered off at the interval, things went from bad to worse for the Blades after the re-start when Stevenage immediately doubled their lead. Scott Laird took the plaudits but his shot took the cruellest of deflections off Matt Lowton which wrong-footed goalkeeper Simonsen.
Blades manager Wilson made a double substitution – Cresswell and Ryan Flynn replacing Chris Porter and Quinn.
And the pair started the fightback with Flynn crossing for Cresswell to head home in the 63rd minute.
The goal had a massive effect on the crowd who cranked the noise levels back up to full volume.
But the Blades had another lucky escape when Freeman set up Robin Shroot only for the striker’s shot to be deflected over.
The tension was palpable and Mark Roberts missed another chance for Stevenage.
O’Halloran had opportunites to become a hero as the clock ticked down but missed chances that the absent Evans has been putting away all season.
Wilson made his third and final substitution, removing a defender for another striker in the shape of James Beattie.
Once again, the switch paid off as Beattie won a towering header that allowed Lowton to equalise, inset, with five minutes to go.
Those last five minutes plus the four minutes of stoppage time will have felt like an eternity for any Sheffield Wednesday supporters watching on television
If the Blades had scored again, it would have put them back in the driving seat ahead of the final fixtures.
Beattie had a shot blocked on the line by the goalkeeper and there were a couple of further hair-raising scrambles in the Stevenage box.
When referee Andy D’Urson blew the whistle to end the game, it was hard not to think that he had also blown time on the Blades going up automatically.
Sheffield United: Simonsen; Lowton, Maguire, Collins, Taylor (Beattie 74); Williamson, McDonald, Doyle, Quinn (Flynn 54); O’Halloran, Porter (Cresswell 54). Unused substitutes: Ertl, Howard.
Stevenage: Day; Lascelles, Ashton, Roberts, Laird; Wilson, Bostwick, Byron, Freeman (Long 84); Shroot (Mousinho 74), Agyemang (Beardsley 78). Unused substitutes: Julian, Reid.
Referee: AP D’Urso (Essex).