MICKY Adams had done his best to insist the outcome of this contest would have little influence over Sheffield United’s fate at the end of their troubled season but the manager’s reaction to the final whistle betrayed his true feelings.
Hands clasped and head bowed, Adams cut a disconsolate figure when a shrill blast from referee Keith Hill brought the action to a close.
His fighting spirit had returned during a defiant post-match inquest.
But despite warning United’s rivals at the bottom of the npower Championship not to “write us off just yet”, Adams will be aware that the implications of Saturday’s defeat by fellow strugglers Crystal Palace could be potentially huge.
With his side now five points adrift of safety and preparing to face Scunthorpe - the team directly below them in the table at Glanford Park tomorrow - the fact it took a superb goal from the excellent Darren Ambrose to break their resistance provided only a crumb of consolation.
“It is disappointing and - yes - there are a few heads down in the dressing room,” said Adams. “But the worst thing you can do in this business is feel sorry for yourself. At times like this you’ve got to stare the situation in the face and take it on.
“It’s up to me to lift the boys and we’ll do that by getting them back out on the training pitch and telling them that they can survive the position they’re in. I’ve taken over clubs in worst positions and got them out of it so I’ve got to hope that I can do it again.”
Adams, who recently appointed one of his predecessors - the much-travelled Dave Bassett - to his backroom staff, added: “Harry tells a story about when he was here and only had four points after 17 games. They ended up finishing in mid-table that year so, if the boys don’t believe me, they’ve only got to listen to him. There’s experience telling them it can be done. That’s fact.”
Palace are the scourge of Steel City football.
Nine months ago they condemned Sheffield Wednesday to the ignominy of life in League One and while the damage they have inflicted upon United’s survival hopes is far from terminal the odds are stacked against Adams and his squad.
United started the afternoon brightly.
Richard Cresswell went close early on and with Lee Williamson, some brief flashes of temper apart, a cultured presence in midfield they seemed destined to enjoy a profitable journey to the capital.
However a defence, anchored in authoritative fashion by Neill Collins, which had comfortably coped with Palace’s attacking threat was unsettled by the introduction of Sean Scannell.
The substitute, whose signature is coveted by a number of Premier League clubs, set in motion the chain of events which led to the breakthrough when he found James Vaughan deep behind enemy lines.
But it was Ambrose, who applied the finishing touch in devastating style, unleashing an unstoppable shot from just outside the box which positively seared past Steve Simonsen.
The United goalkeeper had earlier denied the former Ipswich Town and Charlton Athletic attacker with a superb reflex save but on this occasion was powerless to prevent him finding the back of the net.
As well as being the perfect way to celebrate the 250th league appearance of his career, Ambrose’s memorable intervention also served as an untimely reminder that, for all their honest endeavour, United lack a talent capable of conjuring the type of magical moment required to settle such delicately poised fixtures.
“Darren was probably he only person out on the pitch capable of doing something like that,” Dougie Freedman, the Palace manager, insisted.
“Whatever else happens, you can’t legislate for the wonder goal,” said Adams.
Cresswell and Marcus Bent saw attempts hacked off the line as the visitors enjoyed long periods of possession either side of the interval.
But a Palace rearguard which has not been breached at Selhurst Park since early November held firm.
Not, though, without enjoying several slices of luck, most notably when Paddy McCarthy came within a whisker of heading Bjorn Helge Riise’s low centre into his own goal.
The Norwegian, making his full debut following a loan move from Fulham, could yet furnish United with the cutting edge required to claw themselves out of trouble and end Adams’ wait for his first victory at the helm.
“Everyone knows I support this club but, forget all about that at the moment, I’m smarting because I’m a manager who doesn’t like losing games,” he said. “Yes, perhaps it’s a bit of a double whammy because I’ve got an affinity to the team that perhaps others in my position haven’t.
“But I’ll bring battling qualities to the table and that’s what’s going to make it all the sweeter when we do start winning games.”
Don’t write us off just yet. I’m not giving up and the lads aren’t going to give up either.
It can be done. There’s no doubt about it.
I’ve taken over clubs in worst positions in the past and they’ve got out of trouble.
Of course it’s not going to be easy. But we’ve just got to roll up our sleeves and fight.