Football truly is a funny old game but the sight of a Sheffield United team which, only six days earlier, had come within a whisker of beating top-flight opposition succumbing so meekly to a League One rival was no laughing matter for manager Nigel Clough.
The visitors arrived at Crewe Alexandra bristling with positive words and ominous intentions only to produce a performance thoroughly devoid of the ingredients required to win what was a vitally important contest in the battle to avoid relegation from the third tier.
Clough, whose side enter tomorrow’s FA Cup replay with Fulham a point adrift of safety after failing to improve their miserable record on the road, could barely conceal his anger after watching two goals from Chuks Aneka and a late Byron Moore effort condemn United to what may yet prove a hugely damaging defeat.
The fact that only two players, including new signing Stefan Scougall, were absolved of any responsibility spoke volumes about the former England international’s mood.
“We didn’t start well and there was a lack of energy,” Scougall said. “We all know in that dressing room that the first half was nowhere near good enough. We didn’t get going at all.
“So what we’ve got to do now is look at the reasons and then go again; go out there and show what we are capable of doing.
“We’re in a battle so let’s battle hard.”
Scougall, making his full United debut after leaving Livingston last month, possesses the body of a schoolchild but a streetfighter’s heart.
With the absence of captain Michael Doyle through suspension robbing Clough’s team of its nasty edge in midfield, the young Scot tried to redress the balance by flinging himself into tackles despite his slight frame and creative brief.
“I’m used to the physicality of the game back home,” Scougall said. “I was always getting kicked up there and so I’m used to having to jump back up, dust myself down and go again.
“I know I’m small in stature but, because of that, I try and be aware of who is around me and if I’ve got the ball at my feet then it doesn’t faze me if someone wants to come hurling in because I know there’s something I can do.
“I love to drive at defences, take people on, pass, move and keep the ball.
“But, if needs be, then I’ll do the other side of things too. Really, it doesn’t bother me at all.”
“Sheffield United is a massive club,” added Scougall, who had also attracted interest from Peterborough and Wolverhampton Wanderers before arriving at Bramall Lane.
“And it can only get bigger so the manager here didn’t have to sell it to me at all.
“As soon as I heard of their interest it was a no-brainer for me. I was really excited about things and couldn’t wait for the transfer to go through.
“He (Clough) is trying to rebuild the club. So, what we’ve got to do is make sure we stay in this division and then look to kick on next season; make sure that we’re towards the top and not the bottom.”
Clough has done much since celebrating his appointment with a victory over Crewe four months ago.
United would be 15th in the table if only results during that period counted, while the arrival of talents such as Scougall and John Brayford, the other player to escape his wrath, have equipped them with a polished edge.
However, United’s continuing problems away from home threaten to undermine all of that good work. Addressing those failings - they have tasted success just once on their travels in the competition all season - has assumed the same importance as acquiring a predatory centre-forward when the emergency loan window reopens later this week.
“Stefan is fearless and we need a few more like that,” Clough said. “Anything we were going to create was always going to come through him.
“I don’t like mentioning individuals players - for good or bad - but I would excuse him and also John for what happened out there.
“He (Brayford) struggled with the rest of them during the first half but then he kept bombing up and down, trying to put crosses in and made one tackle that was as brave as you’ll see.”
“I’ve got to give credit to Crewe as well,” Clough continued. “They showed a lot of qualities that are very ‘un-Crewe-like’ out there as well. They got the bounce of the ball on one or two occasions but, especially with the second goal, we helped them with that.
“With a little bit more ability and desire, we’d have scored a goal out there ourselves. I’ve no doubt about that.
“There were some balls which flashed across the pitch but no-one got on the end of them. Our lack of goals showed out there.”
Crewe, with Aneke having now scored five goals in his last seven outings, have no such problems despite also finding themselves in a perilous predicament towards the foot of the rankings.
On loan from Arsenal, Aneke enjoyed a stroke of good fortune when his long-range effort deflected past George Long following a decent period of United pressure before doubling the hosts’ advantage with another emphatic finish on the stroke of half-time.
Scougall went close soon after the re-start while Jose Baxter and Bob Harris also whipped tempting centres across Ben Garratt’s six-yard area only for none of their United colleagues to respond.
However, although Harry Maguire and Chris Porter were later inches away from prodding home two more crosses, United’s fightback had long petered out by the time Moore tapped home during the closing stages.
“I thought we were worth our win,” Steve Davis, the Crewe manager, said. “We controlled long periods out there.
“Okay, so there were a few times when we got a bit of a break perhaps. But that
doesn’t mean we didn’t deserve to come through. When the ball did fall for us, it fell to exactly the right man because Chuks is bang in form at the moment.
“There’s a long way to go yet and we are by no means safe. But we’ve given ourselves a platform to build on now and hopefully wecan use that to kick on.”
Crewe, who climbed to 19th, struggled to contain Scougall during the early skirmishes with the Scotland under-21 international testing Garratt from distance before seeing George Evans block his attempt on the edge of the box.
Long adjusted well when Mathias Pogba’s centre threatened to sneak under the crossbar after catching the wind but the United goalkeeper was powerless to prevent Aneke breaking the deadlock after driving through from deep.
Aneke doubled Crewe’s advantage when Ajay Leitch-Smith’s free-kick fell kindly at his feet.
Despite engineering several promising positions, United failed to properly test a nervous -looking Garratt before Moore prodded home at the far post when Long parried away Bradden Inman’s shot.
“After the break we pressed them much higher and caused some problems,” Scougall said. “But now we have to bounce back from this and be ready to go again.”