THIS was a game of two halves, one red card and, from Sheffield United’s perspective, bitter disappointment.
Danny Wilson’s demeanour was a frosty as the weather after Alan Judge’s late strike saw Notts County overcome a wretched start, compounded by Francois Zoko’s dismissal, and secure the point their perseverance deserved.
United, now without a League One win in four outings, had been challenged to seize control of the division before making the short journey to Meadow Lane. They departed with Wilson, whose order appeared to inspire and intimidate in equal measure, urging someone to simply grab hold of a team which has slipped eight points off the automatic promotion pace.
“We need a player - better still, players - to grasp the rest of the lads by the a**e and get them into gear,” the United manager said. “And we need to get into gear quickly.
“It’s coming to the end of January and we want to begin making inroads.
“Listen, this is a great time to be in the team because we’re battling for promotion. You’d rather be doing that than fighting against relegation.
“The race is there for the taking and we want to be the ones who do exactly that.”
Saturday’s contest highlighted both the best and worst sides of United’s character.
A goal in front after less then two minutes courtesy of Harry Maguire’s header, they seemed destined to enjoy a rewarding afternoon when Zoko was sent off for dissent midway through the opening period.
But County’s endeavour and persistence gnawed away at their confidence to such a degree that, when Judge equalised, few in a raucous crowd swelled by over
three thousand travelling supporters will have been surprised.
United, well equipped to win a technical battle, are brimming with good intentions.
But, with influential figures such as Neill Collins and Matt Hill nursing serious facial injuries, they lack the obstinate streak required to impose their collective will.
“Would we have lost that with certain people in the team? I doubt it because they’d relish that type of battle,” Wilson said. “There was a nervousness out there at times and a few of the lads are struggling with their confidence a bit. I’m not going to deny that.
“You can’t turn it on and off like a tap so all you can do is play through it - go back to basics and carry on working hard, which I know they’ll do.
“The key is to play to your strengths, and if you’re not playing well show the work ethic which eventually will see you through.”
“There is a fear of making the wrong decision in some of the lads,” Wilson added. “But they’ve got to keep believing in themselves, try to keep doing the right thing because if you have that attitude it will eventually come.”
Weather permitting, Wilson hopes his frank critique provokes the desired response at Bury tomorrow evening.
Nevertheless, had someone told the former Northern Ireland international he would be reflecting on anything other than a resounding win
at the interval, Wilson could have been forgiven for laughing in their face.
With Danny Higginbotham, the recent signing from Stoke City, commanding in defence and Dave Kitson
achieving the perfect balance between industry and ingenuity in attack, United burst out of the blocks in determined fashion.
Kitson, later withdrawn as a precautionary measure after being cautioned by replacement referee Mark Haywood, was only inches away from doubling their lead when he connected with Tony McMahon’s centre at the far post.
Blackman, whose delivery from corners continued to cause County problems after setting-up Maguire, would later have profited from the striker’s deft touch but for Neal Bishop’s timely intervention.
Wilson said: “We started ever so well.
“We pressed County high up the field, didn’t give them any room and that forced them to make mistakes.
“But in the second, I lost count of how many times their lads were picking up the ball in central midfield with nobody around them no matter how much we were saying to get tight.
“We started hoofing the ball forward rather than trusting in our ability.
“We’ve got plenty of it, nobody should have any doubt about that.
“We’ve got to trust in it more. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.”
County’s groundstaff had summoned a humungous effort to ensure this match, which took place in sub-zero temperatures, even went ahead.
Keith Curle’s players displayed similar commitment to emerge a much more formidable proposition after the break.
Indeed, a blocked attempt from Kevin McDonald apart, United struggled to create a chance of note during the closing stages of a frustrating enounter.
Judge’s fifth goal of the campaign finally stunned the visitors’ back into action.
But it was too late to prevent their sterling work earlier from effectively going to waste.
“I thought we were the better team,” Judge said.
“They caused us problems to begin with but in the end it was only really their set-pieces that were bothering us.
“We always felt we could take something away from that with us.
“And I felt it was only right that we did.”