THE miracle they had hoped for failed to materialise but Kevin McDonald is still confident that Sheffield United’s season will end on a positive note.
Despite amassing 90 points and 92 goals during a compelling League One season, Danny Wilson’s side departed Exeter City contemplating a play-off semi-final with Stevenage rather than celebrating automatic promotion back to the Championship after failing to dislodge Sheffield Wednesday from the runners-up berth.
The facts and figures of United’s campaign prove, McDonald reminded everyone following this controversial draw, they possess the calibre required to ensure they join their arch-rivals in the second tier next term.
The former Scotland under-21 international also insisted that, more importantly, Wilson’s charges boast the conviction and character to keep up with the Joneses too.
“We’ve got nothing to fear,” McDonald said. “Obviously it’s not ideal to be right up there all year and then just fall short but we won’t dwell on it.
“We’ll dust ourselves down and push on.
“For me, we are the best team in this league. We’ve got some real quality and, although we unfortunately finished third, we’ve been in these positions before and bounced back from them.
“Credit to winners Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday because any other year we’d have been promoted. Hopefully, in three games’ time, we’ll be joining them in the Championship.”
United, though, must progress without James Beattie who received a straight red card for a tackle on James Dunne during the closing stages of the first half.
Wilson, who made no attempt to disguise his contempt for referee James Linington’s decision, hinted the striker could attempt to have it overturned on appeal before acknowledging that, barring an unexpected change of heart by the officials, United are likely to travel to Hertfordshire on Friday with their attacking options further reduced.
“In this day and age people will look at the DVD and say he probably deserved it,” said Wilson. “But he didn’t.
“It was a strong tackle and one that I’d have been proud to make myself.
“Fans want to see that type of thing. It wasn’t a tackle that was going to harm anyone’s career and their lad has kicked through.
“The ref reacted to the situation that developed afterwards and that was typical of his game today.
“I saw two tackles on another of our lads - Lee Williamson - when people left the floor and there was no booking. There’s no consistency.
“There were things going on off the ball that the ref’s not seen and the same on it.
“One player of theirs must have infringed 10 times in the second half and doesn’t even get a card.
“I’m not here to castigate the referee or blame him for the position we’re in. But that’s just the way I saw it.”
They made the journey more in hope than great expectation but United, who knew they had to better Wednesday’s result against Wycombe Wanderers to regain second place, continued to dig deep against relegated opponents even though they knew events back in South Yorkshire were conspiring against them.
Saturday’s contest was a tale of two midfielders, with Exeter’s David Noble orchestrating events during the opening period before McDonald wrestled back control after the break.
Despite his hulking frame, McDonald ghosted across the turf with sinuous grace and, together with Williamson, emerged as the driving force behind a courageous performance which saw United overcome their numerical disadvantage to take the lead following Alan Gow’s opener only to relinquish it with the last kick of the game.
A giant with the gossamer touch.
“Every single one of the lads put in a great shift out there,” Wilson said. “And that’s the type of spirit and character we want to take into the play-offs. You’ve got young Ryan (Flynn) whose given so much that he could hardly walk when he came off.
“Every single one of them gave everything, and they had to after going a man down because Exeter had nothing to lose and this is a tough place to come.
“We already knew the score at Hillsborough so I’m not going to criticise them for letting one in right at the end,” added Wilson. “If things had been going differently there then our team shape would have been different too.”
Noble and Daniel Nardiello both went close as Exeter made a bright start and when Gow curled a perfectly-executed shot beyond a despairing Steve Simonsen, before Beattie was dismissed, United seemed destined for defeat.
However, when McDonald, who later found the net courtesy of a wicked deflection, set in motion the chain of events which saw Matthew Lowton centre for Williamson to level, Paul Tisdale’s men were firmly on the back foot.
Nardiello and Gow continued to test Williamson’s patience with a series of niggly challenges and United’s Chris Porter struck the post following an excellent run across the box.
But fellow substitute Scot Bennett snatched a point with the last kick of the game from close range.
McDonald, a member of the United team held to a draw by Stevenage nine days ago, is adamant Wilson’s charges have the resilience to drag themselves across the line despite knowing that in all but one of the past ten seasons their points total would have been enough to secure a top-two spot.
“I had a bit of luck with my goal but you always need a bit of luck to go up and we’ve not had that the past few weeks,” he said. “Take that game against Stevenage. We started really well and then they got two deflected goals and we found ourselves behind.
“But that match, and the one at their place, won’t have any bearing now.
“The play-offs can be a bit of a lottery at times but we’ve got the team to do it without a shadow of a doubt.
“Getting to Wembley and the chance to go up after having a massive day out there is a huge incentive.
“Have we got the quality to do it?
“We want to win our next three games.”