At the end of a week in which almost the entire footballing world - and beyond - debated Sheffield United’s decision to sever ties with one former striker, it was somewhat inevitable that another would return to haunt them in their League One clash against Oldham Athletic at Bramall Lane on Saturday.
Granted, the early composed finish of Jonathan Forte, a boyhood Blade who made 42 appearances in United colours in two spells, was not the definitive one in this contest, which ended one apiece thanks to substitute Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s eye-catching leveller for the frustrated hosts.
But it did highlight, to many of those of home persuasion among the 19,767 crowd, the difference that an established striker can make to a side. Goals change games; a good striker can make an ordinary team great.
United are far from an ordinary team, of course, but they were far from great against Lee Johnson’s impressive Oldham side. Afforded both protection and possession by the composed Mike Jones, former Chesterfield loanee Daniel Johnson, of Aston Villa, shone throughout the game and the visitors’ front two of Forte and Jabo Ibehre caused Jay McEveley and the returning Paddy McCarthy all manner of early problems.
“Oldham were better than us today for large portions of the game,” United manager Nigel Clough conceded in his post-match inquest. “It wasn’t a good enough performance, especially given how good we have been recently. So, in that context, it’s a very good result for us - especially when you consider how poorly we played at times, it’s a good point.”
No doubt Clough and his staff thought all three may have been on the way when United, days after withdrawing their olive branch to former striker Ched Evans, began on the front foot and Jose Baxter, the former Oldham man, forced Paul Rachubka into a smart save in the opening minute of the contest.
But after weathering that initial storm, Johnson’s Oldham began to establish their own foothold in the game, and McCarthy, back from suspension, was twice forced to be alert as Colchester loanee Ibehre threatened to test Mark Howard in the United goal.
After his heroics against Doncaster Rovers and Crewe Alexandra, Howard went into this clash having conceded just once in over six hours of football. But he was up against a striker with 11 goals in 16 and, somewhat predictably, it was United academy product Forte who broke the deadlock with a calm finish, after Johnson’s fine pass had dissected the home defence.
Still just 28 years of age, Forte has struggled to showcase his obvious talent on a consistent basis - despite enjoying 14 different spells at nine clubs, including Doncaster Rovers and Rotherham. But the young journeyman seems to have found a home at Oldham, and Latics boss Johnson - who played under Clough at Derby - said: “That’s what Jon can do when he gets the bit between his teeth.
“I’ve got nothing but praise for my boys, but also for Nigel. He’s a good man and a very good manager at a fantastic club, and I have a huge amount of respect for him - as a manager, as a top player and as a genuine guy. He’s someone I look up to and hope to emulate It’s no secret they need a striker, but he’s doing a good job here. And after all, I’m not in a position to judge him as a manager because he’s achieved so much more than me in the game.”
Clough, who intends to resurrect his interest in Chris O’Grady and Dexter Blackstock ahead of Thursday’s loan deadline, started with Baxter up front before switching him with Jamie Murphy. His frustrations will be eased somewhat today, however, with an anticipated return to training for both Marc McNulty and Michael Higdon, who have been out with facial and hamstring injuries respectively.
Stefan Scougall led United’s response after the opening goal, but his shot was dragged wide of Rachubka’s goal and, at the other end, Johnson’s stinging shot went just over Howard’s crossbar.
His opposite number, former Manchester United trainee Rachubka, was finally tested minutes before the half-time whistle, when Bob Harris’ skimming shot forced him to palm the ball to safety with a strong left hand.
“We’ve had a few games recently so some of the boys looked a wee bit leggy in the first half, but that’s not an excuse,” Scougall said. “They got in a rhythm and out-played us, and probably out-worked us too.
“We showed some spirit and togetherness to get a point but the quality wasn’t there, other than Jam’s [Campbell-Ryce] goal. He’s been brilliant over the last few weeks and we know what he can produce ... he can change games and give everyone a lift.”
Campbell-Ryce certainly brought a timid Bramall Lane alive minutes after replacing Baxter, when he ran at left-back Joseph Mills, cut outside and unleashed a stinging effort across Rachubka and into the back of the visitors’ net. The equaliser sparked a slight response from United, but McEveley had to be alert to deny Forte a late winner after the excellent Johnson had slipped him in once again.
United’s hopes of a late winner were raised slightly when Ibehre received his second yellow card for an off-the-ball incident at a throw-in.
Referee Andy Davies could have levelled it up minutes later when McEveley pulled back another United old boy, Dom Poleon, but the defender escaped with a yellow card.
“We couldn’t take any credit for the substitution ... Jose took a whack in the back and was feeling it, so he had to come off,” Clough said.
“Jam made a real difference for us but we were disappointed with how we played after the goal. But it’s about the bigger picture - people who have been playing well were under par today, and if that continues we’ll have to address it. However, we’re six points off the top team in the league with a game in hand. We know we’re capable of playing better.
“And we intend to improve.”
Sheffield United: Howard 7, Alcock 6, McCarthy 6, McEveley 6, Harris 6, Doyle 6, Basham 7, Scougall 6, Murphy 6, Flynn 6, Baxter 6 (Campbell-Ryce 62, 7). Subs not used: McGahey, Reed, De Girolamo, Turner, Kennedy, Adams.
Oldham: Rachubka 6, Kusunga 7, Dieng 6, Wilson 6, Mills 6, Johnson 8 (Poleon, 80), Jones 7, Kelly 7, Philliskirk 6, Forte 7, Ibehre 6. Subs not used: Dayton, Mellor, Winchester, Tidser, Lockwood, Etheridge.