AFTER a summer’s worth of soul-searching, recrimination and wondering what might have been, the prospect of being able to focus purely on football should have been a blessed relief for Danny Wilson and his side.
Instead Sheffield United, who lost last season’s League One play-off final on penalties, departed Bramall Lane with frustration once again etched across their faces having bowed-out of the Capital One Cup in the same heartbreaking fashion.
Opponents Burton Albion fought like Trojans, particularly after being reduced to 10 men during the opening period of extra time.
But while the visitors’ progress also owed much to the heroics of Ross Atkins who, one error of judgement apart performed wonders in their goal, even manager Gary Rowett acknowledged that Albion had led a charmed life throughout much of this less than compelling contest.
Not that Wilson, having earlier spoken of his determination to reach the second-round phase, was minded to lay the blame for United’s exit at Lady Luck’s door.
Asked whether there were “any positives” they could take after twice clawing themselves back on level terms, the former Northern Ireland international simply replied: “No.”
For two members of the United camp, though, Saturday’s match will live long in the memory.
Nick Blackman, signed from Blackburn Rovers only 24 hours earlier, scored with his first touch of the game while fellow debutant Callum McFadzean also briefly threatened to change the outcome by winning a controversial spot-kick.
“Personally speaking, I couldn’t have wished for a better start,” Blackman said. “Although it goes without saying that I wish the result had been different.
“A club like Sheffield United is expected to win every time it plays and no matter what the tournament.
“And, when you look at the lads we’ve got here, I think that’s fair enough because we’ve got the ability to do it.
“So we’ll have to go away and look at why we didn’t.”
“Getting a goal with my first touch? I really couldn’t have asked for more,” Blackman added.
“I like to play football with a smile on my face and to try and entertain the people who come to watch us.
“I just love being involved in the game and I want other people to try and get the same enjoyment out of it as I do.
“I’ll always try to do something a little bit different. I did out there too.
“Hopefully people will appreciate that.”
With two more new faces - Tony McMahon and Shaun Miller - also making their first appearances since arriving in South Yorkshire, United understandably lacked cohesion.
McMahon impressed with his positional sense and willingness to shoot from range.
Miller, who drew a fine save from Atkins before being thwarted by a post, demonstrated encouraging movement in attack.
United, however, did not possess the urgency which would have made their superior skills pay, with Stephen Quinn among only a handful of home players seemingly prepared to work at pace.
“The longer we work together the better we’ll get,” Blackman insisted.
“Nobody likes losing, that goes without saying, but there’s still plenty to play for this season.
“Having seen what I’ve seen, although there’s always plenty of room for improvement, I’m confident we can achieve our goals.
“And that’s one of the reasons why I came here.
“Because this is a club that’s capable of doing what it wants to do.”
Blackman, claiming he was fouled in the area by ex-Aberdeen teammate Zander Diamond, added: “I know Zander from when I was on loan up there in Scotland.
“Straight away I told him ‘you’ve clipped me’ and he admitted ‘yes’. He knew what he’d done but unfortunately for us nobody else saw it.”
Miller and Robbie Weir had already traded chances and Chris Porter gone close when the lively Adi Yusseff, still observing Ramadan, fired Albion in front with a piercing drive.
Blackman announced his arrival with a looping effort from Ryan Flynn’s deflected cross which deceived Atkins, but the 22-year-old redeemed himself by parrying McMahon’s long-distance shot away to safety.
Blackman saw an attempt hacked clear off the line and again allowed Atkins to showcase his talents before a huge slice of luck enabled Neill Collins
to cancel out Cleveland Taylor’s goal.
Albion were understandably infuriated by the decision to punish captain Nathan Stanton for what seemed a perfectly legitimate challenge on McFadzean.
But, with Collins prodding home on the rebound after Atkins had blocked his penalty, the show of dissent which ended with Marcus Holness being dismissed was inexcusable and foolish.
Nevertheless, United failed to make their numerical advantage against League Two opposition pay.
Harry Maguire blazed over the crossbar after Lee Bell had dragged wide during the resulting shoot-out and, when Michael Doyle saw his penalty saved, Albion felt vindicated as Taylor converted.
“The gaffer has been on at me about getting more goals,” said Taylor. “Every time we stop at a service station he tells me to ask at the counter to see if they sell them.”
Shootout: Quinn (S), Weir (S), Collins (S), Bell (OT), Maguire (OT), McCrery (S), McDonald (S), Webster (S), McMahon (S), Richards (S), Doyle (SV), Taylor (S).
‘S’ denotes scored, ‘OT’ off target and ‘SV’ saved.