The game neither side really wanted produced a predictable result but Neill Collins, Sheffield United‘s influential centre-half, insists his teammates can upset the form guide when they enter the play-offs later this week.
United, who host Yeovil Town in the first leg of their League One semi-final on Friday, have yet to plot a course through the end-of-season knockouts despite qualifying six times since their introduction in 1987.
But a combination of factors, including Chris Morgan’s presence in the technical area, have convinced Collins that this will be their year.
“Last summer, before the very first game, we all sat down and talked about how much we wanted promotion,” he said. “We haven’t gone up automatically but we are confident that we can still complete the job.
“I’m not bothered about what’s gone on before. That’s all in the past and we are looking to the future.
“There are a number of reasons why I think we are more than capable of getting the right result.
“We’ve got strong characters here and now, with so little between all of the sides involved, it’s going to come down to a battle of wills. Who has got the nerve to cope with the fact that one mistake or a moment of magic could decide whether you go up or stay down.
“We’ve got that nerve and we’ve got the experience to handle that. There’s a lot of bottle in this team, even among the young lads, which is going to be absolutely key.”
Morgan, aged 35, took charge when a series of disappointing results on home soil cost Danny Wilson his job earlier this month.
With only five points separating third-placed Brentford and Swindon Town in sixth, Collins said: “It’s all about fine margins. Morgs pays attention to the small details, which can only be a good thing.
“He’s a very different character to what people probably think. Yes, he’s very good at firing everyone up and making sure you’re in the right frame of mind. But he doesn’t just rant and rave. There’s much more to him that that.
“He’s very thorough in everything that he does and always makes sure we are perfectly prepared, that we know everything we need to know about who were are facing and our individual opponents.”
“One of Danny’s best attributes what that he never forgot what it was like to be a player,” Collins continued. “The same went for Frank (Barlow), his assistant, too.
“Morgs, being so young, understands totally what we are going through. He understands the pressures and challenges that face a dressing room because it wasn’t so long ago that he was a player himself.
“That means, although you can’t pull the wool over his eyes about anything, he’s sympathetic about things as well.
“Both he and David (Unsworth) who has come in as well know all about the play-offs. And that experience, as far as I’m concerned, could make a massive difference.
“It could be absolutely vital in my book.”
On paper, Saturday’s contest served little purpose for either United or their opponents Preston North End who, positioned comfortably in mid-table, have improved immeasurably since Simon Grayson’s appointment two months ago.
Nevertheless, despite providing little in the way of entertainment, it laid bare both the strengths and weaknesses of the squad Morgan inherited from the former Northern Ireland international.
Coaxing greater levels of performance out of an attack which has now gone three games without scoring a goal will feature prominently on United’s ‘to do’ list ahead of their double header with Yeovil.
Having recorded their 22nd clean sheet of the season, they will be encouraged by Grayson’s assertion that a well-drilled defence is of critical importance at this stage.
Grayson, who was in charge of the Huddersfield Town side which beat United in last term’s Wembley showpiece, said: “If you aren’t conceding then it means you only need half a chance, rather than six or seven, to win a game.
“It’s absolutely vital to be strong at the back and that’s one of the things we’ve tried to instil in the lads since coming here.
“If the back four is working well then you are always in with a shout. Everything else builds from there and it’s the foundation of any successful team.
“Really, it can make all the difference.”
United, who after finishing fifth in the rankings must travel to Huish Park next Monday, went close to breaking the deadlock when Kevin McDonald tested Declan Rudd’s handling with a low drive during the early skirmishes while Callum McFadzean also warmed the goalkeeper’s gloves.
But it was teenager Joe Ironside, making his first competitive start, who posed the greatest threat to Preston’s rearguard and provided Morgan with plenty of food for thought ahead of the forthcoming double-header with Gary Johnson’s charges.
Ironside should have scored soon after the re-start when he headed over the crossbar following Darryl Westlake’s centre.
But, combining well with both Dave Kitson and Chris Porter, the young centre-forward pressed his claims with an industrious and inventive performance.
Substitute Barry Robson also impressed after stepping off the bench during the closing stages.
“We’ve got competitive characters here,” Collins said.
“People like Doyler (Michael Doyle) and myself who want to win badly if we’re playing football, golf, tennis or whatever.
“So there was no lack of effort from us in the game but I’ve got to admit that this was the first time in the two years that I’ve been here when, really, there wasn’t much at stake.
“We knew we couldn’t get automatic and so it’s understandable that, ever since then, all we’ve really wanted to do was get stuck into the play-offs.
“Nobody wanted to get injured or suspended going into them.
“Let me tell you, what we are going into now is a completely different kettle of fish in terms of atmosphere and intensity.
“It’s all about the next two and hopefully three games.
“That’s what it boils down to. Nothing else.”
Although United enjoyed the better opportunities, Porter and Ironside saw close-range efforts smothered by John Welsh and Paul Huntington respectively, they were indebted to George Long for producing a breath-taking save to deny Jack King just before the hour.
Elliott Whitehouse came close to snatching a late winner but Preston’s Luke Foster intervened.
“I don’t know the entire history of the play-offs,” Collins said. “So I don’t know if teams who finish in this position or that position tend to go through.
“In any case, statistics like that are going to count for nothing. It all boils down to the here and now.”
Substitutes: Porter*(60, 6), Forte, Robson**(71, 7), Chappell, Whitehouse***(76), Barry, Coyne.
PRESTON NORTH END:
Substitutes: Stuckmann, Cummins, Byrom, Garner, Monakana**(65, 6), Proctor***(79), Foster*(46, 6).
REFEREE: S Rushton, 6
MORGAN’S VIEW: I didn’t mind who we got in the play-offs because every team who has qualified is there on merit. They are in there because they are a very good team and exactly the same thing goes for us. From now on, it’s all about who holds their nerve.
GRAYSON’S VIEW: If the lads had performed all season like they’d performed for us then they’d be towards the top end of the table without a shadow of a doubt. They can be proud of what they’ve done and I’ve told them that.
HERO/VILLAIN: Joe Ironside should have scored when he met Darryl Westlake’s centre early in the second-half. But the young centre-forward, making his first competitive start, still delivered an impressive display against the visitors from Deepdale.
REDS AND YELLOWS: Neill Collins and Chris Porter were both cautioned for Sheffield United. But, against a referee who had dismissed two of their team mates during a match against Scunthorpe earlier in the season, the main objective here was to avoid a red card. Fortunately, it was achieved.
TURNING-POINT: Sheffield United enjoyed the better chances but they were still indebted to George Long for making a superb save to deny Jack King. The young goalkeeper looked to have been beaten when King met a well-taken centre after the interval but he somehow managed to claw the ball out of the air.
REMEMBER THIS: You see some strange sights inside football grounds these days. But none stranger than a teenager in the away end, sporting what could best be described as a Teddy Bear costume, ‘offering out’ grown men in the home stands. Truly bizarre.
VIEWPOINT: Given the situation both these club’s found themselves in, it was no surprise that the match was hardly ‘edge of your seats’ stuff. Preston simply wanted to play the season out. Sheffield United’s first priority was avoiding injuries or suspensions ahead of the play-offs.