Having spent less than 40 days as Sheffield United manager, Nigel Clough admits he is still learning about the options and issues bequeathed by his predecessor David Weir, writes James Shield.
Last night’s contest, against a Walsall team flexing its muscles at the opposite end of the table proved to be a particularly illuminating experience.
The contrast in styles made for intriguing if not entirely compelling viewing. But, from Clough’s perspective at least, the sight of his players surrendering a lead in careless fashion will be the abiding memory of a mixed evening.
“That was a hard-earned point,” Clough said. “There are certain things we can do better but the important thing, given where we are, is that we’re fighting and scrapping.
“The effort and application from the lads out there was absolutely superb. I couldn’t fault that at all.”
Chris Porter has spent the majority of his career in South Yorkshire on the periphery of United’s squad.
However, replenishing the 29-year-old’s reserves of confidence and self-belief has been one of the biggest success stories of Clough’s embryonic reign.
Porter, who seemed destined to leave Bramall Lane following spells on loan with Shrewsbury Town and Chesterfield, deservedly edged United in front when James Chambers handled Tony McMahon’s cross.
However, the lapses in concentration which have contributed towards perilous predicament in the rankings reared their head again when Craig Westcarr equalised early in the second half after escaping his marker.
United, who have kept only three clean sheets in all competitions this season, were close to wrestling back the advantage when captain Michael Doyle flung himself at the industrious Conor Coady’s centre and Lyle Taylor came within a whisker of combining with McMahon at Richard O’Donnell’s far post.
However, given their respective positions in the League One rankings, this could turn out to be a valuable point for Clough’s charges as they battle to haul themselves clear of the relegation zone.
“It’s small details at the moment rather than big problems,” Clough continued. “Now we are much more resolute and harder to beat.
“Walsall are a good team and you can see they are playing with a lot of confidence. We can always pick certain things apart but, overall, to take four points from our last two games is a good return. We’d have taken that.”
While United chop and change in the search for a winning formula, Walsall, who entered last night’s match within touching distance of sixth place, have been a model of stability.
Clough, the fifth person to take charge of the South Yorkshire club since his counterpart, Dean Smith’s appointment nearly three years ago, called for Bramall Lane’s hierarchy to adopt a similarly consistent approach after being unveiled as Weir’s permanent successor ahead of last month’s victory over Crewe Alexandra.
He kept his side of the bargain by making only two changes to the starting 11 which had beaten Bristol City three days earlier, with Shaun Miller
partnering Chris Porter in attack and Matt Hill deputsing for the suspended Harry Maguire at centre-half.
Miller sliced wastefully wide when United prised Walsall’s defence apart in the ninth minute and, although his blushes were spared by the sight of the assistant referee’s flag, it set the tone for a first half which saw the hosts enjoy the better of the opening exchanges until a series of dubious refereeing decisions allowed their opponents to establish a foothold in the match.
Stephen McGinn’s delivery from set-pieces has emerged as a steady source of goals for Clough’s side this term.
But for Andy Butler’s timely 14th-minute clearance, which prevented Coady’s glancing header from crossing the line, the former Scotland under-21 international would have claimed the fifth assist of his United career.
Coady, deployed in an unfamiliar role on the right hand side of midfield, tried his luck again during the closing stages of
the first half before Aidy White was denied a clear-cut penalty.
Nevertheless, United edged themselves in front soon after when Porter claimed his third goal in only four games when James Chambers was adjudged to have handled McMahon’s searching cross and Porter duly converted from the spot.
“I don’t think I know what a foul is anymore,” Smith said. “The first one was probably a penalty. The second one definitely wasn’t.”
Walsall, who had earlier seen George Long deny Lalkovic following White’s misjudged header, dragged themselves back on level terms within two minutes of the re-start.
James Baxendale, previously of Doncaster Rovers, powered down the flank and swept a powerful centre towards the six-yard boxwhich Westcarr nodded home from point-blank range.
“In the end, I think a draw was a fair outcome,” Smith said.
Goals: Porter (45), Westcarr (47).
United: Long 6, White 6, Hill 6, Doyle 6, Porter 7 (Taylor 81), Miller 6 (Baxter 61), McGinn 7, Collins 6, Coady 7, Lappin 6 (Murphy 78), McMahon 6. Not used: Howard, Cuvelier, King, McGinty.
Walsall: O’Donnell 6, Taylor 6, Butler 7, Featherstone 6 (Hewitt 86), A Chambers 6, Mantom 6, Lakovic 6 (Hemmings 64), Westcarr 6, Downing 6, J Chambers 6, Baxendale 7 (Sawyers, 76). Not used: Purkiss, Lewis, Benning, Sawyers, Gray.
referee: C Sarginson (Staffs).