GARY Smith, the Stevenage manager, said he had been feeding his team a diet of “raw meat and razor blades” ahead of last night’s match at The Lamex Stadium.
However they were anything but ferocious as the balance of this League One play-off semi-final tilted slightly but not decisively in Sheffield United’s favour.
Clear-cut chances were at a premium as both sides huffed and puffed without ever threatening to reproduce the type of form which has brought them to within touching distance of joining Charlton Athletic and Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship next term.
United, though, will enter Monday’s return at Bramall Lane the more satisfied of the two having seen their experimental system stifle Stevenage’s early ambitions before forging openings for Kevin McDonald and Lee Williamson during the closing stages.
Despite amassing 90 points and scoring 92 goals en route to Hertfordshire, United travelled south with their Championship credentials being called into question having failed to secure automatic promotion.
Boss Danny Wilson, admitting he is reminded of his predecessors’ miserable legacy in end-of-season knockout competition “about five times every day,” arrived determined to achieve success at the sixth attempt.
Having insisted the result was more important than a performance, Wilson departed knowing his men had achieved their primary objective of delivering a professional if not explosive display.
On paper, United, who finished three places and 17 points ahead of their rivals in third following an eventful draw against Exeter six days earlier, appeared more than a match for Smith’s cobbled together collection of promising youngsters, loanees and journeymen.
However, despite their absence of household names, Stevenage have proven stubborn opponents as they look to reach the second tier only 24 months after kissing goodbye to the Conference.
They are unbeaten against both of Sheffield’s footballing powerhouses this term.
United, making three changes to the 11 which drew at St James’ Park, handed Stephen Quinn a free role behind Chris Porter, with Ryan Flynn asked to patrol the flanks.
Predictably, they came under an early bombardment with Stevenage pumping a series of long balls in the direction of Patrick Agyemang.
But it was at the other end of the pitch - Porter tumbling to the turf after being pushed by Jon Ashton - where the first moment of controversy occurred.
Referee Tony Bates waved away United’s appeals for a penalty with Stevenage’s Michael Bostwick carving the next opening of note after the visitors’ midfield was slow to react.
Steve Simonsen, the United goalkeeper, watched Bostwick’s long-range effort midway through the first half sail harmlessly over the crossbar before Bates incensed Wilson again by refusing to spot Lawrie Wilson’s shove on Flynn.
Selected to test the resolve of Stevenage’s defence, the flying Scot also demonstrated a willingness to help out his colleagues at the back and made several crucial interceptions before the interval when Agyemang and Bostwick looked to swarm forward.
However, it was Luke Freeman, whose talents have attracted admiring glances from Wilson already this term, who posed the greatest threat to a United rearguard expertly marshalled by Neill Collins and Harry Maguire.
Six minutes before the break, Michael Doyle thwarted his attempts to test Simonsen from distance but United’s captain was powerless to prevent the former Gillingham attacker presenting Craig Reid with the space to unleash a curling shot which was tipped on to the woodwork.
Heeding the warning, United wrestled the initiative immediately after the re-start but were unable to test Chris Day until Porter and Quinn combined to send Flynn spiralling into a challenge with his marker on the edge of the six-yard box.
United had their second penalty appeal turned down when Freeman tripped Williamson, who later warmed Day’s gloves with a low drive.
McDonald saw a snap-shot deflected wide as Stevenage started to run out of ideas but neither could fashion the breakthrough.
n STEVENAGE: Day 6, Wilson 6, Laird 6, Ashton 6, Reid 6 (Mousinho 64), Byrom 6 (Shroot 71), Roberts 6, Freeman 7, Bostwick 6, Agyemang 6, Lascelles 6 (Myrie-Williams 81). Subs not used: Julian, Beardsley, Shroot.
n UNITED: Simonsen 6, Lowton 6, Doyle 7, Flynn 6 (Cresswell 89), Williamson 7, Collins 7, Maguire 6, Porter 7, McDonald 6 (Ertl 89), Quinn 6, Hill 6. Subs not used: Taylor, Howard, O’Halloran.