There is an unwritten rule in football that players deemed surplus to requirements by clubs in trouble are bestowed with mythical powers by sections of their support.
Previous performances, no matter how unconvincing or indifferent, are forgotten. Potential is all that counts.
After spending a large part of his week explaining the departures of Febian Brandy and Florent Cuvelier, Nigel Clough will have been thankful those players still at Sheffield United’s disposal produced the type of whole-hearted display which, despite not achieving the desired result, excused him from revisiting the subject once again.
Both teams gave their absolute all during an intoxicating contest containing chances aplenty.
Once Bradford City had clawed themselves back on level terms after United’s Jamie Murphy and Harry Maguire had scored before the break, the hosts threw caution to the wind in an attempt to land the decisive blow.
With United still 19th in the League One table and the visitors departing having failed to record their first win at Bramall Lane since 1988, the final outcome does not serve either side particularly well in their respective League One campaigns.
But, having dominated possession and created most of the clear-cut opportunities, United had more reason to feel aggreived when referee Roger East, whose decision-making was questioned by both managers afterwards, brought proceedings to a close.
“The lads are gutted in the dressing room because we felt we did more than enough to get the win,” Maguire, now United’s leading goalscorer with six this season, said. “We started like a house on fire, deservedly went 2-0 up and then they scored what can only be described as two lucky ones which means we’ve had to settle for a point.
“But the fact the fans, who are giving us magnificent support, stayed behind to applaud us off shows that we’re giving everything. What we’ve got to do now is channel that disappointment into something good, remain positive and kick on.”
Clough keeps a diplomatic silence when asked whether some members of the squad he was bequeathed in October were cut out for a relegation scrap.
Actions, though, speak louder than words and the former England international has spent the past few weeks farming out on loan many of those who featured prominently during the wretched start to the campaign.
That miserable sequence of results, which saw United win just once in 14 outings, is directly responsible for their predicament now.
The way they approached this match, which saw City’s Kyel Reid sustain a potentially serious knee injury, confirmed Clough plans to confront the battle for survival head on rather than eke out points with a series of cagey, negative performances.
Murphy fired them into an early lead when, netting for the fourth time in nine outings, he beat Stephen Darby to Tony McMahon’s low cross-field pass before Maguire met Jose Baxter’s corner at the far post. Baxter, who was later helped from the pitch after receiving his umpteenth heavy challenge, scooped another McMahon centre over the crossbar moments before Gary Jones’ deflected effort handed City a route back into the game.
“The gaffer is always really positive,” Maguire said. “Everything about training is high intensity and he’s on at us all the time to get on the front foot.
“He shows us little video clips during the week to highlight the things we do well or the things we can do better and that really helps. He’s been in the game a long time and he knows what he’s talking about so we know the things he says are right.”
“I was in a meeting in the week where he was showing Jamie and a few of the other lads bits of film about what they’re capable of doing when they get in the box,” Maguire continued.
“I’ve got to say our
forwards out there were brilliant and gave us numerous openings so it’s frustrating that we didn’t put more of them away.”
City, now without a win in nine matches, entered this match having conceded fewer goals away from home than every team barring Coventry, Colchester and Walsall outside of the division’s top six.
Nevertheless, it took United less than 10 minutes to breach their defence when Murphy applied the finishing touches to McMahon’s flowing move. When Maguire, after Baxter had denied Carl McHugh with a superb goalline clearance following James Hanson’s header against the bar, doubled United’s advantage City, who sold the prolific Nahki Wells earlier this month, feared the worst.
But Jones and then Hanson ensured the Bermudan, responsible for 40 per cent of the visitors’ league goals this season before joining neighbours Huddersfield Town, ensured Wells would not be missed, although Murphy, Stephen McGinn and Ryan Flynn all
went close as United roused themselves during the closing stages.
“We knew it would be tough coming here,” Steve Parkin, City’s assistant manager, said. “Nigel has changed quite a few things since coming in, making the team a little bit more cohesive, direct and intent on getting the ball out towards the two wide lads who are bang in form.
“To be fair to Sheffield United, they gave it everything to get the goal they needed and, for the last 15 minutes, they were camped in our half, but we’d used all our energy up getting back in the game. The boys did great then because they got the blocks in and threw their bodies in the way of shots.”
“We told the lads at half-time that 2-0 is never an easy scoreline for any team so the first goal in the second (half) was all important,” Parkin added.
“If you get that then it’s not too difficult to summon some momentum, which fortunately we did.
“But I don’t think our forward lads got any protection out there. They are a physical pairing but they could have had an awful lot more.”
Clough, who questioned whether City should have been awarded the throw-in which ultimately led to Hanson’s effort, hopes to bolster his options with “one or two” loan signings before next week’s visit of Peterborough United while an offer, potentially worth £400,000, has been submitted for Livingston’s Stefan Scougall.
Billy Paynter, making his full debut after joining United until the end of the season, impressed before being replaced by Chris Porter while McMahon, Flynn and Baxter, who should be available for Sunday’s FA Cup tie against Fulham despite hobbling off, provided the hosts with a creative edge.
Clough cited Jones’ shot, which wrong-footed George Long after taking a wicked deflection, as the “turning point” of the match and Maguire added: “Both of their goals could have gone anywhere.
“Then, we’d have been coming off talking about a really good win and a really good performance. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be but, if we carry on in the same manner and start getting the rub of the green, which we definitely aren’t at the moment, then I’m sure we’ll start climbing that table.”