Their margin for error towards the foot of the table is slimmer than the cut of Shaun Derry’s suit, but Sheffield United’s Billy Paynter remains convinced that his new side will secure League One survival despite this disappointing and, at times, contentious defeat.
The visitors, now only two places above the relegation zone with less than half of the season remaining, relinquished a winning position for the second time in three outings as the ruthless streak which, only seven days earlier had ended Aston Villa’s FA Cup hopes, vanished when they needed it the most.
However, while manager Nigel Clough was left lamenting his players’ failure to exploit more of the promising positions engineered against opponents who also find themselves scrabbling for safety, Paynter insisted he had seen enough to suggest that the club he joined on loan only 24 hours earlier possess enough talent to climb out of trouble providing they rediscover their spiteful edge.
“As soon as I knew Sheffield United were interested in me I was itching to come here,” Paynter said. “It’s a great club with masses of potential and the people here to make sure that’s fulfilled as well.
“We’ve got the ability here to start moving forward and, knowing a lots of the lads as I do, I’m sure that’s only going to be a matter of time.
“We got off to a great start, had County worried, but then let them grow into the game. I’m sure the gaffer will be tearing his hair out at the moment that we didn’t come away with more. However, with the quality in that dressing room it won’t be long before everything falls into place.”
Paynter, as his contribution towards Doncaster Rovers’ promotion last term demonstrates, knows what it takes to prosper in a competition where only a handful of points separate 21st-placed County from Crawley Town in 14th.
As Clough intimated afterwards, the 29-year-old will be joined at Bramall Lane by another centre-forward before the transfer window closes but, having selected him over a number of other potential targets, he believes Paynter’s physicality and experience can prove in valuable between now and the end of the campaign.
Certainly the former Leeds and Swindon Town marksman, his imposing frame adorned with bumps, bruises and tattoos, demonstrated enough during a combative second-half cameo to suggest those suspicions are correct.
“I’ve not had much of a shout at Doncaster lately, which is disappointing after helping them to go up,” Paynter continued.
“A new manager has come in there with new ideas and that’s football but I do feel as if I’ve got something to prove and I want to repay United and Nigel Clough for showing the faith to bring me here.
“In this day and age and at this club, he’ll have had agents falling over themselves to try and offer him players so it feels good to know that he wanted me. That’s a real confidence boost.
“I’m out of contract in the summer and so I really felt I needed to be playing games. Hopefully I can do well here and see what happens then.”
“I’ll try to help the lads out and bring some aggression up top, contribute with link-up play and goals.
“There are a few young players here and I’ll give them advice if I feel they need it. Really, I just want to be a positive influence in any way I can.”
Despite their perilous predicaments, both these teams have been on an upward trajectory since appointing new managers of late.
United, who entered Saturday’s contest 11th in the form table, were languishing in the relegation zone before Clough’s arrival in August while County, averaging 1.27 points under Derry’s tutelage, boast one of the division’s most miserly defences on home soil.
When Conor Coady breached the hosts’ rearguard during the opening skirmishes, it should have been the platform for United to turn that statistic on its head.
However, with the midfielder and most notably Stephen McGinn guilty of missing excellent opportunities, County seized their chance in a manner which suggests they will also be competing in the third tier next term.
“Credit to them,” Paynter acknowledged. “They made it tough and fought hard.
“Sometimes it’s all about doing the nitty gritty, being dirty and doing the horrible little things. When we were threatening, they were doing quite a lot of kidology and getting all the fouls.
“But that’s what you’ve got to do at times as well as getting to ball down to play.”
Although Clough expressed concerns about the manner of Mark Fotheringham’s winner - “Matt Hill could have done better but, in fairness, he’s been excellent for us of late” - and United profligacy in the final third - “We got ourselves into some good situatons and created easily the best chance of the game” - it was referee Kevin Wright, not McGinn’s inexplicable miss, which really provoked his ire.
The Cambridgeshire official waved away Coady’s appeals for a first-half penalty when his shot appeared to hit Enoch Showunmi, who had earlier clawed County level, on the arm.
The Cambridgshire official was unmoved but the theatrical manner in which the striker furiously rubbed his forehead - which certainly did not connect with the ball - suggested something was awry.
“It was a blatant handball,” Clough said. “Our supporters will be going home wondering why some of the decisions were given out there. Some of them were very puzzling.”
Likewise Coady’s judgment call when, having exchanged passes with Chris Porter to claim the opening goal, he opted to try and stroke rather than power the ball home after Jose Baxter released him on the edge of the box.
Showunmi restored parity by bundling home Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s centre from close range before Fotheringham pounced when an uncharacteristic error from Hill contributed to the chain of events set in motion by another expert centre, this time delivered by Alan Sheehan.
McGinn should have equalised but blazed over the crossbar unmarked before Baxter went close during the closing stages but could not prevent United slipping to their second consecutive League One defeat following the New Year’s Day reverse at Walsall.
“We’ve got lads who like to get the ball down and play,” Paynter said. “It was a real battle out there on that surface. We didn’t take the chances that came our way and that’s what you’ve got to do to win.
“But we will do, make no mistake about that.”