MANAGER Danny Wilson has spent the best part of 11months trying to keep his emotions in check but the reaction of Sheffield United’s players betrayed the significance of this result.
Having spent ten weeks seemingly destined to secure automatic promotion from League One, they filed off the pitch heads bowed and faces etched with despair after choosing one of the worst possible moments to relinquish their grip on the runners-up berth.
With arch-rivals Sheffield Wednesday now a point above them in the table entering Saturday’s final round of games, United travel to Exeter City knowing they are no longer masters of their own destiny.
Wilson and Richard Cresswell - whose entrance soon after the interval ruffled Stevenage’s feathers - refused to accept United’s hopes of avoiding the play-offs had been dealt a terminal blow.
But, with Dave Jones’ men preparing to host a relegated Wycombe Wanderers team which has won only four times on the road all season, their words sounded as unconvincing as United’s performance for long spells here.
“It’s disappointing, of course it is,” Cresswell, who impressed despite requiring several pain-killing injections in his injured shoulder, admitted. “But they (Wednesday) are the ones in front now and they’re the ones under pressure.
“This is football. I’ve been in the business a long time now and I know funny things can happen.
“We won’t give up and we’ll carry on fighting because, even if we don’t go straight up, we’ve still got a great chance of getting into the Championship.
“It’s up to the experienced lads, like myself, now to make sure the younger ones in the dressing room who might not have been in this situation before stay focused and don’t get down.”
Cresswell, together with Ryan Flynn, gave United a presence and purpose they had lacked for long periods of an enthralling contest.
Derided by some supporters earlier this term, the former Stoke City and Leeds striker underlined his importance to the cause by combining with his fellow substitute to score the goal which, had a series of chances not gone begging during the closing stages, would have marked the start of a memorable comeback.
However, although Mathew Lowton’s late equaliser guaranteed a grandstand finale, the third goal United craved remained elusive.
With Stevenage, who had earlier taken the lead through Joel Byrom and Scott Laird, also wasting several promising positions, Wilson acknowledged the final outcome was probably fair.
“We’re frustrated because we created enough chances at the end. But we also have to show humility and admit they did the same,” he said.
Nevertheless, Cresswell acknowledged a mixture of profligate finishing and indecisive defending had cost United dear.
With the drama being relayed live on television, it made compelling viewing for the neutral but was utterly gut-wrenching for partisans.
“We’ve got to do much better,” Cresswell acknowledged. “The goals we let in were poor.
“I’m not talking about the lads at the back or pointing a finger at them. I’m talking about all of us as a whole because we defend together and we go forward together.
“We’ve got to stop giving people the lead and that’s something we’ll work on.”
Nearly 30,000 United supporters turned up for what they hoped would be a promotion party.
Unfortunately too many of Wilson’s most influential names did not join them until Cresswell and Flynn had wrestled back the initiative.
Kevin McDonald and Lee Williamson were often peripheral figures, with the latter guilty of conceding possession during the build-up to Stevenage’s opening goal.
Stephen Quinn faded after a lively start which saw him pepper Chris Day’s penalty box with crosses but at least made his presence felt with some tenacious challenges and tireless runs.
Although Williamson and McDonald improved as the evening progressed, Stevenage’s Luke Freeman was imperious throughout.
His combination of power and poise, which saw him create an excellent opportunity for Robin Shroot soon after Cresswell had handed United a lifeline, went a long way towards ensuring the
proud record of having never lost a game after taking the lead since climbing out of the Conference remained intact.
“They were good opponents,” Cresswell said.
With Stevenage now sixth, this match could prove to be a dress rehearsal for the play-off semi-finals next month.
Michael O’Halloran and Chris Porter, whose partnership in attack failed to spark, both came close to connecting with Quinn centres during a fast and furious opening before Shroot, who had earlier dragged wide, set in motion the chain of events which ended with Patrick Agyemang crossing for Byrom to score.
A wicket deflection saw Laird double Stevenage’s advantage soon after the re-start before the introduction of Cresswell and Flynn enabled United to move through the gears.
The two substitutes combined to reduce the deficit - Day completely wrong-footed by Cresswell’s header back across goal - before Shroot and Lowton traded shots, the latter forcing an excellent block from Jon Ashton as he attempted to thread a pass through a crowded area.
Cresswell’s emergence coincided with a marked improvement in both the standard and speed of United’s play as they laid siege to Stevenage’s penalty area during the closing stages.
Lowton found the net after James Beattie’s header and when the ex-England international unleashed a curling low drive with only seconds left United looked set to snatch a memorable victory.
Instead, Day hacked clear with his legs before surviving several more late scares.
Cresswell said. “We’ve been focused all season and we’ve got to stay that way.
“We must stick together and make sure, whichever route we take, the season ends on a positive note.”