Close but, as Jason Holt conceded afterwards, no cigar.
Sheffield United were within touching distance of securing a place in the League One play-offs when the midfielder tilted this Yorkshire derby in their favour just before the hour. However typically, and probably predictably, a talented team which seems intent on doing things the hard way saw its defensive ramparts breached by Billy Clarke less than 10 minutes from time.
The Montecristos remain unwrapped. For the time being at least.
“Any game you don’t win isn’t good,” Holt acknowledged. “We went in front and it was really disappointing conceding when we did, but that’s football unfortunately.
“It’s still not mathematically done so, as players, we need to concentrate on the games we have left 100 per cent. Until that’s the case, and we know we are in the top six, then we won’t be taking anything for granted.”
United’s position in the end-of-season knockouts could be confirmed tomorrow evening when Rochdale, two places and nine points behind them in the table, host Leyton Orient. Should they prevail then Nigel Clough’s side, in fifth, must draw or win one of their final two games, which include, intriguingly, a visit to Matchroom Stadium on Saturday.
Holt has emerged as an influential member of Nigel Clough’s squad since arriving on loan from Heart of Midlothian and, after scoring his fifth goal in seven outings, could help decide whether it spends next term in the Championship or the third tier.
Clough described the 22-year-old as something of an unknown quantity after luring him away from Tynecastle three months ago. But the United manager highlighted his burgeoning status by labelling Holt’s recent contribition as “outstanding” and an example to other members of the team.
“It is amazing what can happen when you keep getting in there,” Clough said. “If he is ten yards outside the box, he doesn’t get that goal. But he keeps making those runs over and over again.
“A lot of the time, nothing happens. But when it drops to your feet, it can be tapped in. Like Jason has shown.”
A match which both clubs entered on the back of crushing disappointments ultimately produced a fair result. Bradford City, reduced to 10 men when Rory McArdle received his second caution during the closing stages, were predictably a very different beast to the one beaten 6-0 by Bristol City in midweek while United, who had lost at relegated Yeovil, enjoyed more of the ball as Jose Baxter and Paul Coutts cajoled and probed. Che Adams also impressed after being introduced.
Nevertheless, although Holt converted from close range after the break following an incisive exchange between Jamie Murphy and Michael Doyle, they were also indebted to Chris Basham and John Brayford for excellent clearances which denied Clarke and substitute Mark Yeates respectively.
“They had a bad result and were always going to respond,” Holt said. “In football in general, if a team gets a poor result they are always going to be trying to put it right for them and their fans.”
“Bradford were hurting from the other night,” Clough added. “Their professional pride, it takes a knock when you lose 6-0 at home. They fought and scrapped for everything. Bradford are a good team, they have shown that all season. They are not too far outside the play-offs and, if they had won, I think they could still have made it.”
As it is, City, who like United have captured the imagination with their exploits in knockout competition of late, must put their promotion ambitions on hold for another year.
Phil Parkinson, Clough’s counterpart across the technical area and seventh longest serving manager in the English game despite being appointed only in 2011, conceded beating the likes of Chelsea and Sunderland had “taken its toll” on his players towards the end of a gruelling campaign.
“Maybe, in hindsight around that cup run, we should have brought a few in, but we had such a tight group I didn’t want to change it,” he said.
City are a more formidable proposition than either their defeat by Steve Cotterill’s side or their league position suggests. The presence of five former United players among Parkinson’s group, including Clarke and Yeates, provided a fascinating sub-plot to a fixture which began in open fashion before becoming more cagey as the first-half progressed.
Clough, overseeing his 100th game at the helm, saw Jamie Murphy, completing a century of starts, spurn an early chance before Holt intervened and Clarke prevented him from celebrating a 50th win.
“With the possession we had in the second half, especially once in front, we have to do more to get a second goal,” Clough said. “For 10 to 15 minutes after we scored, we stepped off the pace.
“On another day we would have seen it out. But we did have a bit of a resurgence once level and I did think Che was going to get us a goal at the end.”
Holt added: “The manager always encourages me to get forward and support the strikers. As a player, I’m always looking to better myself and improve.”
City went about their work with the carefree approach of a team which knew, whatever the outcome, they had very little to lose.
United, who did not enjoy the same luxury, were inevitably more measured but, after Billy Knott has gone close with a low drive, should have taken the lead when Brayford found Murphy.
The Scot’s scooped his shot high and wide, but Holt made no mistake after McArdle, later dismissed following a clumsy challenge on Steve Davies, had blocked Doyle’s attempt.
Clarke ended City’s six-hour wait for a goal when he drilled home from the edge of the box before McArdle received their eighth red card of the season.
“I thought the referee, with it being so late, might have shown a little common sense and just left it,” Parkinson said. “But I saw him reach for his pocket and knew what was coming after that.”
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Brayford 7, Basham 7, Doyle 6, Murphy 6, Baxter**7, Coutts 7, Freeman 7, Kennedy*5, S Davies 6, Holt 6. Substitutes: Alcock*(46) 6, Scougall, McNulty, Willis, Done, B Davies, Adams**(81).
BRADFORD CITY: Williams 6, Darby 6, Meredith 6, A Davies 7, Hanson 7, Clarke 7, Knott**6, Routis 6, McArdle 5, Halliday*7, McMahon 6. Substitutes: Dolan, Liddle, Zoko, Yeates*(61) 7***, MacKenzie***(90), Stead**(81), Urwin.
MANAGERS’ VIEW - Nigel Clough: “It was a good Yorkshire derby with plenty of tackles going in. We were five minutes away from confirming our play-off place but now we’ll have to wait until Tuesday or Saturday.”
MANAGERS’ VIEW - Phil Parkinson: “This is a difficult place to come, especially when you’ve just been beaten as heavily at home as we were.”
HERO: Kieron Freeman impressed at both end of the pitch for Sheffield United. Strong in the tackle and slick on the ball. Is improving with every game.
KEY MOMENT: It threatened to be Jason Holt’s 57th-minute goal following an interchange involving Jamie Murphy and Michael Doyle after Rory McArdle had blocked the latter’s shot. Instead, Billy Clarke equalised with only seven minutes of normal time remaining.
VIEWPOINT: Sheffield United’s top-six status could be confirmed tomorrow evening should Rochdale fail to beat Leyton Orient at Spotland. Regardless of the outcome there, Nigel Clough’s side know a point from their remaining two games will be enough even if Keith Hill’s team finishes the season with three straight wins.
REF WATCH: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire).Rory McArdle’s sending-off, for two yellow cards, came too late to have any real effect on the game. Sheffield United captain Michael Doyle and Tony McMahon, one of five Bradford City players facing their former club, were also cautioned by referee Graham Scott.