Match Report: Sheffield United 0 Brentford 0

United's' Billy Paynter and Brentford's Jake Bidwell in a challenge fot the ball. Picture: Martyn Harrison
United's' Billy Paynter and Brentford's Jake Bidwell in a challenge fot the ball. Picture: Martyn Harrison
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Mark Warburton has proven as adept on the touchline as he did the trading floor since taking charge of Brentford four months ago.

But the currency broker turned football manager found the numbers did not stack-up at Bramall Lane last night after Sheffield United’s courageous display ensured a pulsating contest full of opportunities and incident finished all-square.

The real talking point of this fixture, however, was the remarkable sequence of first-half events which saw Kieron Freeman sent-off and then reprieved following consultations between referee Eddie Ilderton and his assistant Mark Dwyer.

Freeman cut a bemused figure after being shown red for a perfectly executed tackle on Marcello Trotta but was allowed to continue after the Tyne and Wear official realised the error of his ways.

With Ilderton also overturning his decision to award Brentford a penalty, United were inches away from claiming what would have been a dramatic winner at the death only for Ryan Flynn’s drive to be deflected wide.

But, against opponents seemingly destined to reach the Championship next term, Nigel Clough’s side inevitably spent long periods showcasing the defensive qualities which have helped propel them up the table.

United have now conceded only four goals in over 20 hours of football with John Brayford again exemplary despite being deployed as a makeshift centre-half. Little wonder they are exploring ways of retaining the Cardiff City defender’s services when his loan expires.

Polar opposites in terms of background, Clough and Warburton also entered their present jobs wrestling with vastly different challenges.

Clough, who amassed over 600 appearances as a player before seizing the reins at Burton Albion and Derby County, admitted his brief was to save United from relegation after accepting his third managerial posting earlier this term.

Warburton, now assisted by Clough’s predecessor David Weir, inherited a squad with genuine aspirations of promotion when Uwe Rosler decamped to Wigan Athletic.

Previously Brentford’s sporting director, Griffin Park’s board of directors were accused of taking a potentially catastrophic gamble after handing the 51-year-old sole responsibility for first team affairs.

But Warburton, who in his previous guise at the Royal Bank of Scotland thrived on the element of risk, has transformed Brentford from perennial play-off hopefuls into title contenders.

They impressed for long periods only for the proflicagy of Trotta and Clayton Donaldson to undermine their bid to close the gap on leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Clough has also enjoyed plenty of success since becoming United’s fourth manager in three seasons, most notably in the FA Cup where his team meet Hull City in the semi-final later this month.

Preserving the South Yorkshire club’s third tier status, however, was the former England international’s most pressing concern so, despite amassing 43 points and guiding them out of the bottom four, it came as no surprise to hear him warn they were not mathematically safe on the eve of yesterday’s contest.

Nevertheless, the fact that United have spent the past few weeks discussing their chances of mouting a late challenge for the top six underlined they progress they have made under Clough.

It was not until Billy Paynter went agonisingly close to opening the scoring midway through the first-half that United were able to test Brentford’s rearguard.

However, as the contest unfolded, so their influence grew before Warburton’s players again moved through the gears with Jonathan Douglas testing Mark Howard’s handling and Freeman flinging himself in front of Clayton Donaldson’s fierce shot.

Suspicions United, who recalled Paynter and Stephen McGinn, would look to drag Brentford into the trenches proved wide of the mark as the hosts struggled to establish a foothold in the contest.

Despite claiming his side possess the talent to trouble most teams in the division following triumphs over Fulham, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa, Clough has also made no attempt to disguise the fact that character as well as calibre holds the key to United’s hopes of regaining their Championship status.

Michael Doyle, nominated for March’s divisional player-of-the-month award, possesses both in spades and performed an important role keeping Brentford at bay as Marcello Trotta and Alan Judge applied some intense early pressure.

Freeman came to Howard’s rescue in the 10th minute when the goalkeeper sliced a clearance into Trotta’s path and before Donaldson fired over the crossbar after finding himself in space on the edge of the box.

Jamie Murphy stemmed the tide 15 minutes later after being released by McGinn’s slide-rule pass.

Having seen his appeal for a penalty waved away moments earlier following Alan McCormack’s challenge, the Scot ghosted beyond Brentford’s full-back only to see James Tarkowski intervene as Paynter prepared to pounce.

Brentford were indebted to the former Oldham Athletic youngster again when his perfectly timed tackle prevented Murphy from sliding home into an empty net after Conor Coady’s drive from midfield.

Coady, who polished his skills with Liverpool in Warburton’s Next Gen tournament, went close again before Freeman was correctly exonerated by Ilderton after initially being dismissed for his tackle on Trotta.

The Wales Under-21 international, on loan from Derby County, had gifted the Italian possession with a misplaced pass but redeemed himself by prodding the ball out for a corner.

Freeman was bemused - and his colleagues furious - when a red card was shown and spot-kick awarded.

With Ilderton, apparently on Dwyer’s advice, subsequently overturning both, United looked to move through the gears with Murphy and Paynter both going close.

Brentford regained their poise after the interval with Douglas and Donaldson spurning opportunities before substitute Chris Porter followed suit.

Trotta failed to exploit two golden chances during the closing stages before Flynn’s shot was turned behind.