AS the Swindon Town players celebrated in front of the 1,179 supporters who had made the long trip from Wiltshire, the mood among Nigel Clough’s men could not have been more contrasting.
Nathan Byrne’s stoppage-time winner meant the initiative in the quest to reach the League One play-off final on May 24 had swung the way of the Robins and the Blades were distraught.
Not just at losing so late on but also the manner of defeat, and in particular a number of contentious decisions by referee Darren Bond that had proved key.
Clough was so incensed by the official’s handling of such a crucial match that, on spotting assessor Alan Wiley sitting in an otherwise empty directors’ box 15 minutes or so after the final whistle, the former England international shouted, ‘Are you his coach? I want to ask you a simple question’.
The request was turned down, at least in such a public setting with media including The Yorkshire Post present. But Clough’s outburst underlined the sense of injustice that was mixed in with the expected dejection at losing the first leg.
It was a mindset very much shared by his Sheffield United players, many of whom could not help but catch a glimpse of Swindon’s post-match celebrations in the goalmouth at the Bramall Lane end of the ground.
Kieron Freeman, United’s goalscorer in the 2-1 defeat, was one of those to cast a glance in that direction and he admits to planning on using it as motivation in Monday’s return.
“Swindon were celebrating as if they were through,” said the 23-year-old, whose well-taken strike on Thursday night was just the third goal of his career.
“They were probably buzzing because they knew they didn’t deserve to win the game. But that is even better for us.
“The gaffer said to us (in the dressing room after the first leg), ‘They think they’re through.’ Well, we will see about that. There is Monday to play yet.”
Freeman’s drilled shot on 19 minutes capped what had been a fine start to the tie for the Blades, who had clearly been sent out by Clough with the message to seize the initiative.
A strong appeal for a penalty had already been turned down by referee Bond before that opener and Steven Davies also came within a whisker of applying the finishing touch to Bob Harris’s cross.
After that, Swindon fought back and missed a penalty through Ben Gladwin before Sam Ricketts brought the tie level six minutes into the second half.
Both sides then had chances to go in front as Bond continued to make some controversial calls but, ultimately, it was the visitors who prevailed thanks to Byrne’s late, late winner.
“The boys were disappointed with the result but not the performance,” said Freeman.
“Our display was good. We had a lot of chances and, on another day, we’d have been two or three nil up at half-time.
“Over the course of the game, we had created far more. Without a doubt, we are more than confident.
“The result apart, that was one of the best performances we’ve had. There were lads flying into tackles out there and giving everything.
“Unfortunately, I thought a few more decisions could have gone our way. The referee gives one penalty and then he doesn’t give another that was pretty much the same.”
The regular season meetings between these two play-off combatants ended with one win apiece, Swindon triumphing 5-2 at the County Ground before losing 2-0 in January at Bramall Lane.
Freeman added: “Swindon have got the one way they like to play. They pass the ball but we pressurised them into so many mistakes. That might play to our favour.
“It might make them more cautious and we can force them into even more mistakes.
“Their fans at home will want them to perform. But with a 2-1 lead do they defend or do they attack? We’ll have to wait and see.
“The big thing is it is just one goal. And there is no away goals rule. Like the gaffer told us afterwards, score one and then score another.
“We have to approach the second leg looking to score as many as you possibly can.
“I think we will go into the game exactly as we did this one. We came out and they didn’t expect us to hit them as hard as we did early on.
“Swindon have annihilated teams at times this season. But they were nowhere near doing that to us. You could tell in the game that they were expecting it to be easier than it was.
“The boys were disappointed afterwards. But that was good and we have to use it.”