It has probably come too late to save this season but, after months of haphazard displays and missed opportunities, Sheffield United finally seem to have discovered a formula which should ensure the next one proves a much more profitable experience at Bramall Lane.
That this always industrious and at times thoroughly inventive performance did not deliver the desired outcome owed as much to goalkeeper Stuart Nelson’s heroics as any failings on the part of Nigel Adkins and his team, although some profligate finishing certainly contributed to the end result.
With nine points now separating United from sixth-placed Walsall with only five matches remaining the play-offs, barring a comeback of biblical proportions, are now almost certainly beyond reach, although, reflecting on a contest the Blades dominated in terms of possession and chances created, Jay McEveley predicted his colleagues will soon be able to dispense with the prayer mats.
“It’s building up now,” United’s captain said. “And if we can put a strong end to the season - no matter where we finish - then going into next one it will stand the club in great stead. There will be an excitement and buzz around the place.”
Positive words and bold pronouncements can not disguise the fact that, languishing 10th in the table ahead of Saturday’s derby against Chesterfield, United have flattered to deceive during Adkins’ debut campaign in League One’s hottest of hot-seats.
But, as both he and McEveley claimed following this skirmish, there are signs of progress. Gone, thanks in no small part to the presence of on-loan defender Alex Baptiste, are the defensive errors which have cost them dear on countless occasions since August while a change of system has transformed them into a much more cohesive unit going forward.
They are improvements, according to McEveley at least, that renders talk of yet another change at the helm unfathomable.
“A lot of people have been disappointed in the season we have had, but you can’t just expect a whole new staff, manager and team to come together in July and everything to click in August,” he said. “It doesn’t work like that. Maybe once in a blue moon, but usually it takes time to settle and build.
“I think you are seeing that here now, in our performances and consistency. The system is working well and the lads are enjoying it. The fans can see what we are trying to do.”
“It has to be done, cchieving that stability,” McEveley continued. “ You see teams in upheaval all the time, from the Premier League down to the Conference.
“It doesn’t do the team any good or the club. You need to stick with someone who can push you forward. This manager and the coaching staff are getting things working, the players are enjoying it, the fans seem to be enjoying it, so it’s good looking to the future.”
Fifth-placed Gillingham certainly found United a more formidable proposition than the one they trounced 4-0 on the opening day of the season. Justin Edinburgh’s side are impressively obstinate, organised and durable but they were forced to live on their wits at times, with Che Adams striking the woodwork before Nelson thwarted the youngster, Billy Sharp and Paul Coutts.
With Bradley Dack starting on the bench following injury - the visitors boast a 51 per cent win ratio when the midfielder features as opposed to 33 without - Gillingham lacked a cutting edge, although Deji Oshilaja should have hit the target rather than the stand after meeting Max Ehmer’s touch.
Edinburgh was convinced referee Rob Lewis should have awarded two second-half penalties against United; the first when Flynn, who had earlier seen his own claim waved away following a tangle with Nelson, felled Andrew Crofts before McEveley blocked Luke Norris’ shot on the line.
But Adkins, the 10th person to take charge of the hosts since their relegation from the Premier League nine years ago, was equally furious after watching the official halt the action to caution a Gillingham player after Coutts’ free-kick had sent Sharp through on goal.
“It might have hit my hand, but my hand never moved from my side,” McEveley admitted. “It came, hit me in the stomach and then my hand.”
Nelson denied Coutts again before Matt Done, who left the stadium wearing a protective boot, went close on the stroke of full-time.
“It’s disappointing. We threw everything at them,” McEveley said. “We came off the pitch and a few of the lads were saying: ‘How have we not won that game?’
“But the consistency of the team over the last six weeks has been what we wanted; it’s exactly what we needed, in fact.”
Sheffield United: Long 6, Basham 8, Flynn 6, Coutts 7, Sharp 6, Done 7, McEveley 7, Baptiste 8, Adams 7, Edgar 7, Hammond 8. Not used: Howard, Woolford, Sammon, Calvert-Lewin, McGahey, Cuvelier, Whiteman.
Gillingham: Nelson 8, Jackson 7, Ehmer 8, Al-Abd 6, Hessenthaler 5 (Williams 32, 6) (Dack 83), Donnelly 6 (McDonald 62, 6), Crofts 6, Norris 6, Dickenson 6, Wright 6, Oshilaja 6. Not used: Garmston, Egan, G Morris, A Morris.
Referee: Rob Lewis (Shropshire).