SHEFFIELD United’s hopes of securing automatic promotion were this evening dealt a huge blow when they were held to a draw by Stevenage at Bramall Lane, writes James Shield.
The result means Danny Wilson’s side, who for so long appeared destined to clinch at top two berth, now trail Sheffield Wednesday in the table with only one game to play.
SEE THE STAR ON MONDAY FOR FULL REACTION, REPORT, PICTURES AND MORE FROM THIS AND ALL OUR LOCAL TEAMS.
United chose their most pivotal match of the season to deliver a largely disappointing display although they improved immeasurably after the introduction of Richard Cresswell and Ryan Flynn.
Having threatened to overwhelm Stevenage during the early skirmishes, they unravelled alarmingly after Joel Byrom had given their opponents the lead on the counter-attack with Scott Laird’s deflected shot extending the visitors’ advantage at the start of the second-half.
Substitute Richard Cresswell reduced the deficit soon after stepping-off the bench before Matthew Lowton drew United level during the closing stages.
James Beattie thought he had snatched a dramatic 88th minute winner only for Stevenage goalkeeper Chris Day to save with his legs.
It means United must now beat Exeter City next weekend and hope Wycombe Wanderers’ can record a shock result at Hillsborough if they are to avoid the nerve-wracking agony of the play-offs.
With Wednesday winning at Brentford earlier this afternoon, United emerged from the tunnel knowing exactly what they had to do.
“Who wants it?” asked the stadium’s PA announcer.
And, as early as the first minute Michael O‘Halloran came within a whisker of putting them on course for the win they requited to leapfrog their arch-rivals from across the city in the rankings.
Stephen Quinn made an early statement of intent with a surging run down the flank and when the former Republic of Ireland under-21 international whipped in a curling cross, either the young centre-forward or Chris Porter seemed destined to deposit the ball in the back of the net.
Unfortunately, neither of United’s two strikers were able to cleanly connect.
Results elsewhere also meant Stevenage required a result to jump back into the play-off positions.
With Jordan Slew, a graduate of United’s academy and now on-loan from Blackburn Rovers missing-out, Patrick Agyemang was the visitors’ focal point in attack.
Neill Collins, one of Wilson’s most consistent performers this term, won a series of early headers against the towering marksman but was powerless to prevent him from helping to create Byrom’s goal.
Quinn clearly had the bit between his teeth and, in the ninth minute, made inroads down the opposite wing but Porter, despite flinging himself forward, could not get what would surely have been a telling touch at the far post.
United, showcasing their new home strip, applied plenty of early pressure but we forced on the back foot when Collins stepped in to block Agyemang’s route to goal.
Again, though, another delightful cross from Quinn went begging as the action continued to ebb and flow.
Once a defender himself, Gary Smith, the Stevenage manager, has clearly marshalled the Hertfordshire club’s rearguard well since taking charge in January.
As the midway point of the opening period approached, Lee Williamson fired over the crossbar after Smith’s back four failed to yield.
Mark Roberts did his best to plot a course through Wilson’s as he launched a 24th minute counter-attack but the relief inside the ground was palpable when Robin Shroot shot wide.
Just as it was when Luke Freeman saw an effort deflected inches past an upright.
In the 30th minute, came the turning point.
At one end, Matthew Lowton’s centre was just missed by Quinn.
Seconds later at the other, Byrom fired Stevenage in front with a delicate finish after Shroot had played the ball forward towards Agyemang whose cross was turned in.
Day palmed Harry Maguire’s header around the post from Williamson’s set-piece but, only two minutes after the re-start, Laird doubled Stevenage’s lead with a wicked shot which completely deceived Simonsen.
Collins saw a goal bound header deflected over the crossbar for a corner as United tried to muster a response with both Cresswell and Ryan Flynn entering the fray.
They made an almost immediate impact with the latter producing the centre which Cresswell headed back across goal and into the bottom corner of Day’s net in the 63rd minute after Michael Doyle had got the move underway.
Shroot missed an absolute sitter after the excellent Luke Freeman had carved straight through United’s spine with Jon Ashton producing a wonderful block to prevent Lowton’s cross reaching Cresswell or O’Halloran who, soon after, deliberated too long as he tried to engineer some space just in front of the six yard box.
United, laying siege to the Stevenage area, introduced Beattie with John Mousinho, the hero of Stevenage’s play-off final success last year, also stepping-off the bench.
With six minutes remaining, Lowton’s volley into the roof of the net raised the roof at Bramall Lane with Beattie claiming the assist but the winner remained elusive.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Simonsen, Lowton, Doyle, Williamson, Collins, Taylor (Beattie 74), Maguire, Porter (Cresswell 56), McDonald, Quinn (Flynn 56), O’Halloran. Not used: Ertl, Howard.
STEVENAGE: Day, Wilson, Laird, Ashton, Byrom, Roberts, Freeman (Long 84), Bostwick, Agyemang, Lascelles, Shroot (Mousinho 74). Not used: Julian, Reid.
REFEREE: Andy D’Urso (Essex).