SHEFFIELD United received another reminder of why this season’s race for promotion is impossible to predict following another frustrating afternoon at Bramall Lane.
Two days after recording a deserved victory over fellow contenders Tranmere Rovers, Danny Wilson’s side were held by a Carlisle side scrapping for their lives at the opposite end of the League One table.
The visitors, who finished the match with 10 men when Sean O’Hanlon was dismissed for a second bookable offence, arrived cast as supposed stepping stones on United’s route towards the top two.
However, they had clearly failed to read the script and departed having become the 12th club to deny the hosts maximum points on home soil since August.
“If someone isn’t coming to party then it’s difficult to have one,” Wilson said. “But when you’ve had the chances we’ve enjoyed then it’s disappointing not to have taken any.
“Of course it’s annoying when you don’t win at home. Maybe there is a bit of anxiousness around the place but we’ve got to try and use that to our advantage.”
Jon-Paul McGovern and Paul Thirlwell, both former United players, delved deep into their vast reserves of experience to ensure Carlisle posed a threat going forward without sacrificing their shape.
But Wilson, whose team climbed to fourth, said: “This division is so strange this year. It’s so close it’s untrue and the fact we are talking about being disappointed with the result yet have still moved up the table says it all.
“We’re in a good position, a strong position and we’ll just keep ploughing on.”
Kevin McDonald, who by his own admission started the season slowly, has rediscovered the rhythm which makes him such an accomplished footballer in recent weeks and was the instigator of most promising United moves.
However, there was no escaping the fact that this was no Easter extravaganza.
The introduction of Jamie Murphy, now recovered from troublesome back and hamstring complaints, injected some much-needed urgency and intensity into United’s work, with Jonathan Forte wasting a glorious opportunity midway through the second half.
But as Greg Abbott, the Carlisle manager, said: “I thought we deserved something because we showed so much determination.
“Especially after losing Sean.
“They put the ball into areas where we had to be manful. And that’s exactly what we were.
“But we didn’t come here to draw. We came here to win.”
Carlisle, who made two changes to the starting 11 which had shared the spoils with Shrewsbury Town last weekend, handed Andy Welsh and Liam Noble the responsibility of equipping them with a more obdurate edge for yesterday’s visit to South Yorkshire.
It was a ploy which enjoyed some success as, until Barry Robson forced him to punch after a quarter of an hour, visiting goalkeeper Mark Gillespie was relatively untroubled while Noble struck the woodwork during the closing stages of the first half.
Welsh, peeling towards the far post, had earlier headed McGovern’s seventh minute free-kick wide while Dave Kitson made a superb block to prevent James Berrett testing George Long’s reflexes following another set-piece.
Midway through the opening period, Long produced a smart block to parry Welsh’s curling drive after the former Yeovil Town midfielder ghosted across the edge of his box.
United, recalling Dominc Poleon at the expense of the injured Ryan Flynn, tried to exploit the youngster’s pace at every opportunity during the early skirmishes, with McDonald in particular spraying diagonal passes across Carlisle’s back four.
Nevertheless, it was a near interchange involving Neill Collins, Tony McMahon and Robson which forged the corner United’s Scottish midfielder nearly sneaked inside the near post.
With Carlisle getting men behind the ball whenever United were in possession, perseverance or a moment of ingenuity appeared the hosts’ best chance of success.
Kitson, having seen Welsh go close, produced the latter with an impudent back-heel which sent Poleon scampering forward before being crowded out.
Then Neill Collins, United’s commanding centre-half, tried to break Carlisle’s resolve with a show of strength from Robson’s 26th-minute corner but his header flew over the crossbar.
Eight minutes before the interval, Poleon and McDonald combined well, with the latter’s fierce shot being turned around the post by Gillespie.
Long diverted Noble’s drive on to the woodwork but United, introducing Murphy and Danny Higginbotham after the break, began the second half in much for positive mood with Robson nearly pressurising Gillespie into what would have been a costly mistake.
Murphy teased his way into a dangerous position just before the hour but Thirlwell prodded the ball away at the vital moment.
Eight minutes later, Forte should have handed United the lead after substitute Joe Ironside punched a hole in Carlisle’s rearguard but miscued badly.
Lee Miller, the visitors’ captain, was inches away from punishing that error soon after but, with Long beaten, failed to hit the target.
O’Hanlon saw red with 17 minutes remaining after impeding Ironside but Abbott’s charges held on.
“It’s time refs come out and explain themselves,” Abbott said. “Technically that decision was probably correct. Practically, he wants shooting. If you get sent off for that then you’d never finish a game with 11.”
blades: Long 7, Maguire 7, Hill 6 (Higginbotham 46, 6), Doyle 6, McDonald 7, Kitson 6 (Ironside 63, 7), Collins 7, Forte 6, Robson 6, Poleon 6 (Murphy 46, 6), McMahon 6. Not used: Westlake, Porter, McFadzean, Coyne.
CARLISLE: Gillespie 7, Simek 6, McGovern 7 (Manset 84), Livesey 6 (P Murphy 77), Welsh 7, Noble 6, Thirlwell 6, Miller 6, Berrett 6, Mustoe 6, O’Hanlon 6. Not used: Collin, Loy, Cadamarteri, Potts, Beck.
Cautions: McMahon (30), O’Hanlon (43), P Murphy (89). Red card: O’Hanlon (73).
Hero: Midfielder Kevin McDonald was at the heart of most promising Sheffield United moves. The former Scotland under-21 international showed good poise and balance throughout this bank-holiday contest and forced a good save from Mark Gillespie.
Viewpoint: Sheffield United will be forced to reshuffle their defence for games against Walsall and Crawley Town after Tony McMahon collected the caution which triggers an automatic suspension during the first half of yesterday’s contest.