It is still far too early to speak of pivotal fixtures or must-win games but Nigel Clough has warned Sheffield United’s players the rest of the season will prove a chastening experience unless they acknowledge their predicament towards the foot of League One, writes James Shield.
Clough, the South Yorkshire club’s manager, issued his threat after watching two lamentable defensive lapses condemn them to a 10th defeat of the campaign and another week in the relegation zone.
Gillingham, as Clough’s counterpart, Peter Taylor, recognised afterwards, boast plenty of rough edges but fought like Trojans to keep their opponents at bay.
The same could not be said of United who, despite controlling long periods of this fractious contest, paid a heavy price for gift-wrapping goals at the beginning of both halves.
“Of course the table is a concern for us,” Clough said. “It has been a concern for us from day one.
“That’s why we asked the lads in the dressing room afterwards ‘you do realise where we are don’t you?’
“Because nobody in our position can afford to be taking risks the way we did at times out there.
“Nobody makes mistakes deliberately and I know we’ve got an honest bunch here, but there are certain things we must do better
“Teams at the bottom shouldn’t be taking risks and you’ll find that, in particular situations, the teams at the top don’t either. That’s why they are where they are.
“You just can’t expect to concede the way we did out there and then go on to win the game.”
The story of the season so far makes uncomfortable reading for United.
Twenty-third in the rankings and still without a clean sheet at home, they will enter Saturday’s contest with fellow strugglers Bristol City searching for a first win on the road.
The manner in which Gillingham breached United’s porous rearguard brutally exposed the reasons why.
Harry Maguire’s weak back-pass presented Danny Kedwell with the opportunity to scramble home beyond George Long while Cody McDonald, who entered the fray when the former AFC Wimbledon centre-forward succumbed to injury, restored the visitors’ advantage from close-range having reacted sharpest when United’s goalkeeper turned a header from John Mousinho on to the crossbar.
Simon Lappin, whose excellent delivery from set-pieces had earlier allowed Chris Porter to draw the hosts level, correctly insisted United’s performance had not been without merit.
Ryan Flynn demonstrated the combination of style and steel Clough has identified as a pre-requisite for those wanting to carve long-term futures at Bramall Lane, Aidy White started brightly before eventually losing his way while Porter and Shaun Miller again dovetailed well in attack.
Nevertheless, Lappin was also forced to admit that failing to adhere to certain basic principles had cost United dear.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “Because we gave them their chances and something to hold on to.
“We’ve got to sit down now and talk about it, talk about where we went wrong, get our heads together and learn from it.
“Then, after that, we look to put things right straight away.
“We were the better side, most definitely, in the first half but we handed them the lead before doing the same thing in the second.
“And they were poor goals to give away too. We can’t afford to do that again.”
“We were definitely good enough to have taken at least something from that but it’s important we understand why we didn’t.
“Fortunately, though, we’ve got enough quality here to bounce back and go on a good long run.”
United and Gillingham had barely broken sweat when Kedwell claimed his ninth of the season following Maguire’s miscalculation.
Elliott Hewitt, one of three debutants in Taylor’s squad, prevented the centre-half from redeeming himself by clearing off the line as Lappin peppered Gillingham’s penalty area and it was no surprise when Porter netted emphatically from another expertly-taken corner.
“We know all about Chris’s qualities,” Clough said after watching the striker score for the second time in a week. “We need our forwards to be getting goals and so that was good to see.
“He won’t enjoy any favours and, like everyone else in his position, ultimately he is going to be judged on goals. But I thought that Chris and Shaun did well out there.
“They held the ball up well and the result certainly wasn’t down to them.”
With Maguire going close again soon after and Miller forcing Stuart Nelson to save after being released by Tony McMahon, United appeared destined to secure the victory which lifted them out of the bottom four.
Instead it was Gillingham who secured the breakthrough when McDonald, ending a six-match drought in front of goal, reacted first after Mousinho had been denied.
Miller and Porter both went close to an equaliser when United regained their composure.
Nevertheless, their superiority in terms of both possession and the quality of openings created failed to translate into points.
Nigel Clough: To give two goals away in the manner we did makes it very difficult to win matches. To give away goals at the start of each half,meant they can just sit there. We’ve conceded two goals, both our own doing, and its hugely frustrating. We were a bit nervy and a bit too eager once we’d gone behind.
We are trying to instill a mentality whereby we are hard to beat.
That’s what you need to be. No matter what position you are in.
Peter Taylor: It was a team effort. The players worked extremely hard as a group and you can’t ask for more than that. That was a team performance. The timings of the goals were great.
Maybe not the Kedwell one because he got whacked and had to go off and that was unlucky. But I’m chuffed for them because they worked hard.