THE disappointment was still etched across his face an hour after the final whistle.
But despite watching his team lose a pivotal League One encounter, Danny Wilson, the Sheffield United manager, cut a defiant figure when he discussed Saturday’s match at Charlton Athletic deep inside the bowels of the The Valley stadium.
“What do you think?” Wilson countered when asked whether Johnnie Jackson’s first-half free-kick had signalled the end of the title race. “Do you really think I’m going to say that?”
In truth, having edged Chris Powell’s side seven points clear at the top of the table, the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder’s immaculate strike probably did leave Charlton with one foot in the Championship.
But despite offering contrasting interpretations of the melee which ended with substitutes James Beattie and Darel Russell both receiving red cards, Wilson and Powell did agree plenty of twists and turns lie in wait along the path which leads towards promotion.
“Nothing is decided,” Powell said. “That was a big result for us. An important result. But it doesn’t mean we are up. There is still lots to do.”
With 57 points still potentially available for United this season, (some of their rivals have played one or two games less), Wilson’s reticence to call time on United’s pursuit of top-spot is understandable if not entirely convincing.
Nevertheless, the divisional trophy is not what any of these teams are chasing.
True, the fiercely competitive streak they possess means Wilson and his counterparts would all love to finish first. But reaching the second-tier of English football is the real prize.
Two things emerged from last weekend’s fixture in London. That United possess the qualities and character required to go up but, if they are to avoid taking the convoluted and potentially hazardous route offered by the play-offs, they must become more ruthless in front of goal.
Against organised, obstinate and at times cunning opponents, United enjoyed several golden opportunities to snatch an equaliser only for a combination of dubious refereeing decisions and profligacy to prevent them from claiming the draw their efforts deserved. With barely a cigarette paper separating the clubs vying for position behind Charlton, allowing opportunities to go begging in forthcoming matches against the likes of Huddersfield Town, Sheffield Wednesday and MK Dons could prove equally costly.
Hence, Wilson’s desire to increase the attacking options at his disposal during the transfer window.
United are also facing a conundrum regarding Beattie.
Still clearly someway short of fitness, the former England international needs more than brief run-outs towards the end of games to improve his sharpness.
But with United playing for high-stakes and a suspension now beckoning, Wilson can not afford to be sentimental when dealing with Beattie’s situation.
His knowledge, potential and experience mean he is worth persevering with. But should Ched Evans, Richard Cresswell or Chris Porter become unavailable for selection, then Wilson’s room for manoeuvre up front would be limited.
United return to action in the competition when they visit Colchester next month following this weekend’s FA Cup tie with Birmingham City.
“Nothing is going to be decided for a while yet,” said Wilson. “That’s just not the way this league is. We’ve had shock results ourselves and others too.”