Match analysis: Sheffield United 1 Chesterfield 1 - very little given away by play-off bound duo

Nigel Clough enjoys a word with Paul Cook
Nigel Clough enjoys a word with Paul Cook
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Sheffield United and Chesterfield will be hoping this match proves to be a dress rehearsal for the League One play-off final in three weeks time.

But if they do negotiate safe passage past Swindon Town and Preston North End respectively before locking horns again at Wembley then yesterday’s contest, which brought down the curtain on another eventful season, is unlikely to have provided either with many clues about how that fixture might unfold.

United players celebrate with Marc McNulty after he put the Blades ahead

United players celebrate with Marc McNulty after he put the Blades ahead

Given the high-stakes, it seems inconceivable the next 180 minutes of football these two sides face will be as open or expansive as the incident-packed skirmish, with top six places already assured, they combined to produce here.

Yes, there were a few pointers. But, as United manager Nigel Clough conceded afterwards, he was also determined to keep others up his sleeve.

“It was a deliberate tactic to make changes,” he said. “Chris Basham was out with his knee and Paul Coutts had a hamstring.

“They’re not serious but we didn’t want them involved.

Ian Evatt wheels away in celebration after equalising for Chesterfield

Ian Evatt wheels away in celebration after equalising for Chesterfield

“The only one who was rested outright was Jamie Murphy. And if anyone deserves a rest at this stage of the season then it’s him.

“We were able to give some of the young lads an opportunity. Any experience they get is great.”

Clough had urged those on the fringes of United’s starting eleven to thrust themselves back into contention earlier in the week.

McNulty, signed from Livingston last summer, accepted the challenge in some style.

Mark Howard pounces on the ball with Gary Roberts lurking

Mark Howard pounces on the ball with Gary Roberts lurking

The young Scot’s goal, his 13th since leaving West Lothian, was not so much a gentle prod in the direction of the home bench as a huge shove.

Whether United can find room to accommodate him remains to been seen.

But, given McNulty’s predatory instincts, it is surely a matter worthy of further investigation.

Likewise, the vulnerability from crosses which allowed Ian Evatt to claim his first early in the second-half.

“Marc got half a chance and put it away,” Clough said.

“That shows the value of having someone like him around.

“We have always known Marc can finish. That’s why you have him in your squad.

“If the chance has to fall to anyone, I would rather it be him than quite a few others.

“He has had an up and down season in lots of ways. But we think he has improved since coming in the summer.”

Paul Cook, Clough’s counterpart across the technical area, has crafted an efficient, cohesive unit which possesses the ability to secure a second successive promotion.

What they were not able to achieve, despite taking charge of the second-half, was a first victory at this stadium for 26 years.

“We’ve got a lot of respect for Sheffield United,” Cook said. “You have to for a club of their stature and size.

“With all due respect to ourselves, whenever we come up against them it’s always going to be a far bigger game for us than it is them.

“I thought the lads acquitted themselves well.”

Ultimately, despite their strong selections and pre-match statements of intent, United and Chesterfield knew the game was simply a precursor to Thursday’s main events.

Questions have been asked about the hosts’ ability to both score and prevent opponents from scoring in recent weeks.

However, United entered their 61st match of what has been a long and gruelling campaign boasting a better defensive record than both Chesterfield and Town who will travel to Bramall Lane for the first leg of their semi-final in 72 hours time.

But there is still considerable room for improvement as Evatt would underline.

“We didn’t know if Paul would rest a couple,” Clough continued. “You saw the difference in them having a full-strength side out there at times and you also saw what a good side they are.

“Their back four and midfield has not changed much all season. They’ve been together for two or three years.

“We’ve not had the same back four as much as we’d like and that’s why it was so good to see Jay McEveley coming back.”

“You see Jay’s calmness on the ball. He’s the only natural left-footed centre-half we’ve got,” Clough added. “And you can see, with the balance, that makes a difference.”

With several members of his squad nursing minor injuries, Clough elected to make five changes to the side which had drawn with Leyton Orient a week earlier.

Basham and Coutts were granted leave of absence to recover from niggling complaints while Murphy was allowed to rest.

Chesterfield, who have contested seven fixtures fewer than their neighbours this term, made none as the ever-present records of Tommy Lee and Tendayi Darikwa remained intact.

Lee was called into action during the early skirmishes as Che Adams, one of those to benefit from Clough’s rotation policy in recent weeks, unleashed a spiralling shot which required palming to safety.

It was the first incident of an intriguing and surprisingly high-paced encounter which ended all-square.

McNulty, another United player determined to make the most of his opportunity, was the next to show when he controlled a sweeping pass from Jose Baxter before cutting inside and testing Lee’s reactions again.

Although Chesterfield waited until midway through the opening period before forcing Mark Howard to make a save, they also went about their business with creativity and conviction.

Sam Clucas, Cook’s most lively performer, produced the low drive which United’s goalkeeper gathered at the second attempt.

Gary Roberts, whose influence grew as the afternoon progressed, was thwarted by Louis Reed’s timely intervention as he primed to shoot.

But McNulty stopped Chesterfield in their tracks with a wonderful effort on the turn after John Brayford’s deflected shot.

Evatt equalised when the visitors, regrouping after the interval, won a corner taken by Gary Roberts which Daniel Jones returned into the centre of Howard’s penalty box.

Jay O’Shea, who had gone close soon after McNulty’s opener, saw a good attempt parried away by Howard as Chesterfield seized control.

McEveley produced a wonderful block to deny Clucas as they continued to press but to no avail.

“We’re a passing team and we always try and entertain,” Cook said. “We gave it a real go out there and hopefully we’ll get the opportunity to do it again.”