SHEFFIELD United possess the resources to secure automatic promotion from League One.
But now, with a chequered run of form gnawing away at both their confidence and lead over the chasing pack, they must also demonstrate the resolve.
This match, which for the second time in the space of four days saw Danny Wilson‘s side forced to settle for a draw after surrendering a half-time lead, means they enter tomorrow’s contest at Notts County knowing that anything other than a win could see them slip back into the play-off positions following a five week long stay in the top two.
Tranmere Rovers, taking another important step towards survival, deserved their point after producing a gutsy, whole-hearted display.
But even their manager Ronnie Moore admitted that had United built upon Ched Evans’ 26th goal of the season, the game would almost certainly have been beyond the visitors’ reach.
“The battle to go up was always going to be tight,” Michael Doyle, the United captain, said. “Other people might have though differently but as players we always knew that was going to be the case.
“We’re not looking at points totals or anything like that because until you see that ‘P’ next to your name you don’t know what the total is going to be.
“There won’t be any one single game that defines the run in. Points are going to be dropped by everyone.
“But I’ve got belief in the talent we’ve got here and I’m confident in my teammates.
“We’re still in a good position and I know we’ve got the qualities to come through.”
Doyle cited the imminent return of fellow midfielder Kevin McDonald as one reason he believes United, still second in the table but now ahead of third-placed Sheffield Wednesday on goal difference alone, will be competing in the Championship next term.
But the messages surrounding McDonald’s fitness have been confused as the state of play towards the top of the division itself.
Having earlier appeared to suggest that the supremely gifted Scot, who has missed United’s last seven games through injury, was in line to make his comeback against Rovers, Wilson revealed after watching Lucas Akins’ strike earn them a share of the spoils that McDonald had “never been in line” to face the visitors from Prenton Park.
With Wilson acknowledging that some lacklustre passing had contributed to this “frustrating result,” McDonald’s strained hamstring can not heal quickly enough.
Indeed, United have won only twice since McDonald pulled-up against Preston North End last month.
“Macca is a big player for us and an important player,” said Doyle. “The disappointing thing for me is that we’ve given away two leads now.
“We need to get back on track and start putting these games away. We can do that by upping the tempo and being a little bit more ruthless when required.”
With a centre-forward as prolific as Evans at their disposal, United entered the contest as strong favourites.
Nevertheless, as the sea of shredded betting slips littering Cheltenham last week served to remind, there is no such thing as a dead cert.
In Rovers, still unbeaten since Moore answered chairman Peter Johnson’s distress call a fortnight ago, they encountered opponents prepared to put everything on the line in pursuit of survival.
“United have got the quality,” Moore said. “All they need at is a bit of a break.
“If they’d have got a second goal then I think they’d have been out of our reach but although we perhaps didn’t deserve to win we certainly deserved something because my lads gave everything.
“We were quoted at odds of 11/2 beforehand and that was always too long. I’ve tried to take the fear factor away. I’m not having a go at my predecessor (Les Parry) because I haven’t re-invented the wheel or anything. I’ve just gone back to a system I think suits what we’ve got and told the lads that, if we are going to lose games, then we may as well do that by having a go and fighting.”
United, with the recalled Neill Collins impressing alongside Harry Maguire at the heart of defence, started in confident fashion with Chris Porter, who later saw a header expertly clawed away by Owain Fon Williams, shooting wide and Quinn seeing an effort ruled-out following a dubious foul on the Rovers goalkeeper.
There were flashes of brilliance - most notably when Porter and Quinn fed Evans allowing the Wales international to turn his marker and prod home from close range- but they became increasingly laboured and jaded as the afternoon progressed and goalkeeper Steve Simonsen was forced to produce a wonderful double-save to deny Ryan Brunt following Akins’ equaliser from John Welsh’s corner.
“It was great to see Neill back and any team with a player who is scoring at the rate Ched is should be confident,” said Doyle. “But we don’t just want to rely on Ched even though he’s a massive threat. The rest of us must also step-up to the mark.”