Sheffield United endured a frustrating afternoon at Bramall Lane as, despite rescuing a seemingly impossible situation and then striking the woodwork three times, they were held to a draw by Southend.
Jose Baxter and Neill Collins both scored after Ryan Leonard and Jack Payne had put Phil Brown's side in the driving seat. United seized control during the second-half but, try as they might, could not claim the winning goal in atrocious conditions.
United found themselves under the cosh when Leonard edged the visitors in front from long-range before slipping deeper into trouble when Payne doubled their lead. But Nigel Adkins' team showed their mettle by clawing themselves back on level terms as Baxter and Collins, making his 200th appearance for the hosts, pounced. Baxter's effort came following a corner-kick routine seemingy devised on the training ground. Instead of lofting the ball into the air, Bob Harris drilled it low into the area and, after a skirmish, the Liverpudlian swept home. Then, on the stroke of half-time, Collins found the back of the net.
United, one or two scares apart, were the dominant force after the interval but hit the post three times.
Adkins had attempted to inject some perspective into the debate about United's results before kick-off. Nevertheless, despite that sober analysis, he still decided that changes were required with Long replacing Mark Howard between the posts. Chris Basham, Bob Harris and Che Adams also featured after passing late fitness tests while James Wallace and Jay McEveley featured on the bench following their Johnstone Paint Trophy outings at Fleetwood Town in midweek.
As the rain teemed down, and following an impeccably observed minute's silence following events in Paris last night, neither team seemed willing to feel their way into the match once referee Scott Duncan got proceedings underway. Baxter nearly burrowed his way through the heart of Southend's rearguard before the visitors posed some questions of their own. Baxter was in the thick of things again when he recycled the ball following a counter-attack instigated by Jamal Campbell-Ryce but, after finding Kieron Freeman, the full-back's cross went awry. Adams made inroads in the 14th minute, breezing beyond his marker, but finding that the easiest path towards Billy Sharp had been blocked by a Southend defender. Instead, he curled the ball across the six yard area towards the centre-forward who, in turn, found Campbell-Ryce before the move broke down. Five minutes later, Campbell-Ryce shot wide after more inventive work by Baxter before seeing a cross towards Sharp plucked out of the air by Bentley, the Southend goalkeeper. Southend, though, ensured the cheers turned to jeers with two quick-fire goals in the 29th and 31st minutes. First, Leonard saw his long-range strike from just outside the box find the back of the net, via the inside of a post, after Long had punched clear Kevan Hurst's corner. Then, while United heads were still clearing, Payne doubled their lead from an acute angle following Ben Coker's assist. Adkins' players were facing a huge test of character but Baxter stepped-up to the mark when, in the 39th minute, he turned home from a corner Harris had delivered low into the area. Adams twice came within a whisker of darting clear before Southend prevented, just, the situation from getting out of hand. But they were unable to stop Collins from equalising after finding himself in space following Baxter's corner on the stroke of half-time.
Campbell-Ryce tried to turn the screw following the interval by testing his marker but Adams, who later elected to pass rather than shoot after another dangerous run from the winger, saw a shot blocked before Sharp suffered the same fate on the rebound. A deflection took the sting out of a Dean Hammond volley as United continued to press before Southend regained some momentum following an awkward 10 minute spell at the start of the second period. United wrestled back the the initiative with Sharp seeing a close-range shot on the turn blocked by Bentley who had anticipated the danger following some good work by Hammond and Baxter. Then, in the 74th minute, Baxter hit the foot of the post with a low drive from just outside the penalty area. Sixty seconds later, a glancing header from Chris Basham appeared to shave the far upright of Bentley's net before going out of play. Either way, it was another case of close but no cigar. David Worrall missed a good chance for Southend as United nearly got caught on the counter-attack before Sharp became the third home player to hit the woodwork after unleashing a lovely curling shot from distance.
Sheffield United: Long, Freeman, Harris, Basham, Coutts (J Wallace 84), Sharp, Baxter, Collins, Campbell-Ryce, Adams, Hammond. Not used: Howard, Done, Scougall, Sammon, McEveley, McGahey.
Southend United: Bentley, White, Coker, Thompson, Worrall, Mooney (Pigott 64), Payne (Timlin 75), Atkinson, Hurst (Weston 69), Leonard, Barrett. Not used: Prosser, Bolger, Smith, O'Neill.
Referee: Scott Duncan (Tyne and Wear).