Sheffield United want to be playing Southampton on a regular rather than sporadic basis in coming seasons.
So, despite describing Tuesday’s Capital One Cup success over Ronald Koeman’s side as a potential turning point, Nigel Clough was under no illusions about the importance of claiming all three today.
Reaching semi-finals is nice. But securing promotion would be even better.
Jose Baxter entered this afternoon’s match against Walsall in exactly the same frame of mind.
The former Everton and Oldham Athletic midfielder spent the opening skirmishes driving at the visitors’ defence with invention and purpose while Chris O’Grady provided a more muscular foil.
Bob Harris, whose scored United’s goal during last weekend’s draw at Fleetwood Town, saw an eighth minute free-kick cannon back off the wall as Clough’s team attempted to wrestle control.
Ryan Flynn, advancing forward from full-back, delivered a superb cross into Richard O’Donnell’s penalty area but Baxter, completely unmarked, could not prevent his header from flying over the crossbar.
Che Adams, starting for the first time after arriving from non-league Ilkeston, tried to do likewise from the opposite flank but, miscalculating the required trajectory, narrowly failed.
Walsall had made the journey north in a rich vein of form which had coincided with their victory over United in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy last month. Andy Garner, Clough’s confident and first team coach, insisted yesterday that result would have no bearing upon developments here.
Baxter could, indeed should, have given United a 14th minute lead when he met Flynn’s cross.
Adams showed the balance and skill which had attracted attention from Newcastle and Sunderland by luring Ben Purkiss into a foul soon after but Jay McEveley could not connect with the resulting set-piece which snaked its way through a crowd of players before sailing out of play.
Baxter, who had assumed responsibility for taking it, was at the heart of all United’s most promising first-half moves.
McEveley’s influence grew as the afternoon progressed as the defender continued to underline why Clough had been so keen to sign him earlier this term.
Composed in both defence and attack, he also judged the offsaide trap perfectly to prevent Tom Bradshaw from hunting down Purkiss’ long pass.
Michael Doyle made an excellent interception to prevent a potentially defence splitting pass reaching Romaine Sawyers during a fractious period just before half-time.
But, after referee Graham Horwood had withdrawn through injury, there was still time for Baxter to see a deflected shot hit the crossbar.
Flynn failed to appear for the start of the second-half so United introduced Harrison McGahey.
They began the second-half in bright fashion, O’Donnell twice being forced to hack clear as O’Grady hunted down loose balls but on both occasions Doyle could not find enough space to shoot from range.
Adam Chambers deflected Murphy’s drive just past the foot of his own post but, in the 56th minute, O’Grady handed United the lead when, latching onto Baxter’s through ball, he slid a low finish home between O’Donnell and the near post.
United deserved their lead but it lasted only four minutes when Bradshaw turned Jordan Cook’s centre past Mark Howard. Walsall, who had swapped Baxendale for Forde moments earlier, duly produced their most dangerous spell of the contest.
Murphy, though, thrust them on to the back foot by ghosting across the pitch before finding O’Grady whose drilled cross nearly found Adams who had arrived late into Walsall’s penalty box.
McGahey edged United forward again and O’Grady hooked an ambitious but inventive shot on to the roof of O’Donnell’s net. Seconds earlier, as the hosts took charge again, a superb long-range shot from Harris had the Walsall goalkeeper back-tracking anxiously.
Marc McNulty was introduced in the 75th minute when Baxter made way while Walsall swapped Malvind Benning and Cook.
Adams appeared for a penalty in the 82nd minute after falling under Rico Henry’s challenge but the officials remained unmoved.
Cuvelier entered the fray in the 85th minute and, almost immediately, ghosted behind his marker at trhe far post but headed wide from O’Grady’s deep centre.
Walsall took an age to bring on Ashley Grimes for Sawyers as they indicated that, if they could pinch something on the break, it would be a bonus. Dean Smith, the Walsall manager, would clearly be satisfied with a draw.
And that was how it finished despite United’s best efforts to swing the armwrestle their way during the closing stages. Blades: Howard, Flynn, McEveley, Basham, Harris, Doyle, Baxter, Murphy, Adams, Scougall, O’Grady.
Subs: McNulty, McGahey, Higdon, Turner, McCarthy, Wallace, Cuvelier.
Walsall: O’Donnell, Purkiss, Downing, Chambers, Bradshaw, Sawyers, Baxendale, Cain, Chambers, Cook, Henry.
Subs: O’Connor, MacGillivray, Benning, Flanagan, Grimes, Forde, Manset.
Referee: Graham Horwood