Trips to MK Dons might not stir the emotions quite like, say, an evening at White Hart Lane under lights.
But the disappointment etched across Craig Alcock’s face during a brutally frank post-match inquest betrayed the possible implications of this result.
Eighteen points behind the automatic promotion places with 22 matches left to play, the Sheffield United defender and his team mates must perform absolute miracles during the second half of the season if they want to guarantee Bramall Lane is hosting Championship football next term.
An improbable but not, as the club prepares for its Capital One Cup semi-final with Tottenham Hotspur, impossible task.
“It’s a big gap but in football you never know what might happen,” Alcock said. “When you are playing so many games in a week, which we are going to be doing from now on, then that can dwindle away quickly.
“There’s no way we are going to be giving up on anything because the moment you do that then you may as well pack up and go home. That’s not what anyone here is about.”
With Nigel Clough admitting preparations for Wednesday’s first leg against Mauricio Pochettino’s side will take place against a backdrop of frantic activity in the transfer market, United hope to have bolstered the options at their manager’s disposal before January 31st’s meeting with leaders Swindon Town.
Although a defender and midfielder are known to feature among his list of targets, securing the services of a new centre-forward is likely to be Clough’s priority given events at stadium:mk.
It was a match of two great opportunities with one being taken and, as Karl Robinson acknowledged afterwards, the other not.
“Sometimes when you play against good teams, it’s not going to be that open and entertaining, which the fans that pay the admission fee expect it to be,” Clough’s counterpart said. “I think the players deserve tremendous credit.
“ I thought it was a very evenly-fought game, but when their chance game along they didn’t take it. When ours came along, we took it.”
Robinson was referring to Carl Baker’s immaculate finish after Jamal Campbell-Ryce had earlier failed to convert for the visitors when Bob Harris pierced Dons’ rearguard with a superb pass.
“It’s a shame because, with the form that Jamal has been in, if you’d wanted it to fall to anyone at the moment it would have been him or Sparky (Marc McNulty),” Alcock continued. “Mark (Howard), our goalkeeper, has hardly had any saves to make but unfortunately that’s the way it seems to be going for us a little bit lately.
“However, we’ve all got to do our jobs, no matter what. If we aren’t scoring many, then those of us at the back have got to make sure we keep a clean sheet. It’s all about sticking together, both on and off the pitch, because that’s what can help bring the consistency out.
“Am I confident we can do it? Absolutely. Without a shadow of a doubt.
“And what makes me confident is just looking around the dressing room at the rest of the lads and also the staff. The quality and expertise is there.”
Clough, who could turn his attention back to Dutch striker Kevin van Veen if Brighton and Hove Albion continue to procrastinate over Chris O’Grady’s release, also refused to play the blame game. The former England international confirmed McNulty had been withdrawn after failing to meet his usual high standards but insisted the summer signing from Livingston is impressing behind the scenes at Bramall Lane.
“We’ve probably seen why, coming off the back of some great performances against Southampton, Queens Park Rangers and Preston North End in the league last week, why Marc isn’t quite ready to start every game of a 50 match season,” Clough said. “But he’s a young player and he’s learning and improving all the time.
“Marc was so good in those games and we told him ‘well done, that was excellent’.’ Equally, when he doesn’t get there, there’s no point in us saying ‘that was absolutely brilliant’ because he won’t learn anything that way.
“It’s important to be honest with players and that’s what we are. Jamie Murphy wasn’t quite his usual self but he’s had one hell of a week emotionally what with the birth of his daughter and so that was completely understandable.”
“We should have taken at least a point back home with us because of the way things out there panned out,” Clough added. “If we’d have scored just before half-time then it would have been different. I think we’d have probably gone on to win the game.
“But there’s no blame attached to Jam or anybody else for that matter. Because, even in that moment, he was a big threat for us. They’re such a free-flowing, attacking side, and we restricted them to hardly anything.”
In fact, MK Dons boast the most prolific attack in the division and climbed to third on the back of Saturday’s result.
United, despite facing two top-flight teams in knockout competition of late, are more geared towards defence after conceding only five goals in their last six outings.
But, after Campbell-Ryce had seen his close-range effort cannon off an unwitting David Martin, Baker ensured it was breached by wrong-footing Howard following Will Grigg’s pass.
Until then, two evenly-matched teams had struggled to extricate themselves from the arm-wrestle, with United youngster Terry Kennedy glancing Jose Baxter’s corner wide and Campbell-Ryce inches away from finding Jay McEveley and substitute Michael Higdon with a low centre after robbing Dean Lewington.
At this stage last term, United were 19th in the table before eventually finishing seventh after reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup and winning 15 of their remaining 25 outings.
“We’re good enough to do something like that again,” Alcock said. “So that’s exactly what we’ve got to try and do. As long as we all stay focused and together than anything is possible. We all want the same thing and we all know where we want to be next season so we’ll be working hard to try and make sure that’s the case.”
MK DONS: Martin 6, Lewington 7, McFadzean 7, Kay 7, Bowditch* 6, Reeves*** 6, Grigg 6, Spence 6, Baker 8, Alli 6, Carruthers** 7. Substitutes: McLoughlin, Hodson, Green, Randall**(86), Baldock***(89), Hitchcock, Clarke-Harris*(64) 6.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Alcock*** 7, Harris 7, Doyle 7, Murphy 6, Scougall* 6, Baxter 7, McNulty** 6, McEveley 7, Campbell-Ryce 7, Kennedy 6. Substitutes: Long, McGahey, Higdon**(64) 6, Reed*(46) 6, Dimaio, Adams***(82), K Wallace.