After a week dominated by events off-the-field, last night’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy area quarter-final tie at Walsall should have served as a welcome distraction for Sheffield United.
A very winnable tie and the chance to take another step towards a return to Wembley Stadium; the opportunity, in front of the watching Sky TV cameras and watching world, to put on a performance.
Unfortunately, especially for United boss Nigel Clough, it was an opportunity that his United side could not take, as they tumbled out of the JPT thanks to Romaine Sawyers’ winner, which took an unfortunate touch off United captain Michael Doyle.
And although that opener sparked a renewed sense of purpose and vigour, they deserved little more.
In truth, this tepid display at a sparsely-populated Banks’s Stadium will have done little to unite United’s fractious fanbase, split by the whys and wherefores of the club’s decision to welcome Ched Evans back to training.
Clough, whose side go into Saturday’s South Yorkshire derby against Doncaster Rovers without a win in three, may have been heartened by glimpses of the undoubted quality that United possess in their ranks.
Diego De Girolamo, United’s prodigiously talented Italian starlet, is capable of delighting and frustrating in equal measure and his performance here fell somewhere beneath the two.
A quiet first half preceded an exciting second for the youngster, who showed glimpses of the quality which enabled him to score three in four on loan at York.
He was withdrawn late on to a generous applause from United’s 342 hardy travelling supporters, after an industrious performance sprinkled with invention.
But it wasn’t enough. Too often for United, their final ball was over-hit and, as legs started to tire, they had few answers to the raw pace, power and skill of substitute Mathieu Manset, who almost lit up this damp squib of a game with a delightful chip which fell narrowly over recalled goalkeeper Iain Turner’s crossbar.
If ever a game summed up this much-maligned competition, it was this one. United started well but home striker Tom Bradshaw remained a constant threat, and Chris Basham - who has grown competently into his new role at centre-half, and again excelled here - was forced to be alert to deny the striker as he threatened to bear down on Turner’s goal.
Referee David Coote visibly frustrated the United manager by twice pulling play back for a foul when there was an obvious advantage, and it was the man in black who provided arguably the highlight of the first half-hour when he utilised his ‘vanishing spray’ for the first time. When a can of shaving foam gets a bigger cheer than any action on the field, you know it’s been a drab affair.
Louis Reed eventually tested Richard O’Donnell in the Walsall goal just after the 30-minute mark, with a speculative strike from distance.
Craig Alcock, the United right-back, also went close but the chance of the half again fell to Bradshaw, when he chased Adam Chambers’ through-ball. United defender Harrison McGahey tried to play Bradshaw offside, play continued and Turner had to be alert to clear with his feet, although there seemed a hint of fortune that the ball didn’t squirm under him as he jumped.
Such a fortuitious opener would have summed up United’s first-half struggle and there was a feeling around the ground at half time that, in an encounter as scrappy as this, the eventual breakthrough was never going to be exactly gilt-edged.
And, true to form, this slow-burner came alive - a little, at least - when Sawyers bundled home Anthony Forde’s corner, via Doyle and the crossbar, seconds after the latter had threatened with a promising run and deflected shot.
A genuine moment of star quality from half-time substitute Mathieu Manset then almost put the tie fully beyond United. He burst past one challenge, sold the otherwise-excellent Chris Basham with a few powerful step-overs and fired hard straight at Iain Turner, who beat his shot away in both an act of defiance and self-preservation.
To their credit, United were hardly profligate up until falling behind - put simply, they hadn’t created enough to be. Bob Harris flashed a free-kick comfortably wide of O’Donnell’s goal, but the former Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper - and boyhood Owls fan - would have his heart in his mouth later when he bundled over Porter with his trailing, before referee David Coote inexplicably waved away the vociferous - and justified - appeals, although later replays may have suggested he was unsighted.
The industrious Louis Reed - who was in primary school when United last won on this ground, back in April 2004 - then tested O’Donnell with a stinging long-range effort before Manset once again almost warmed the 2,127 hardy souls inside the Banks’s Stadium with a stunning attempted chip, which fell just over the stranded Turner’s crossbar.
Clough introduced Jose Baxter and Stefan Scougall, for Porter and Stephen McGinn, in an attempt to breathe some life into his side’s endeavours but it was not to be.
After a week of statements and squabbling, this was supposed to be a welcome return to the business of shots and saves but, in reality, there was precious little of either.
“Walsall made it diffucult for us,” Clough said, “but Doncaster is the more important game for us, with no disrespect to this competition.”