Sheffield United: Blades suffer for poor start

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It reveals much about the principles which underpin Nigel Clough’s regime that, despite its mitigating circumstances, he refused to make excuses for this disappointing result.

Yes, the Sheffield United manager acknowledged that fatigue, imperfect preparations and referee Keith Hill’s unfathomable decision not to award Kieron Freeman a penalty at a crucial stage of the game, all played a part in the visitors’ demise.

Ultimately, though, Clough insisted their lacklustre start and poor matchcraft were responsible for a defeat which leaves them facing an uphill struggle to qualify for the League One Play-offs and ensured it was Swindon Town who closed the gap on sixth-placed Peterborough instead.

United, who enter tomorrow’s meeting with Brentford seven points behind Darren Ferguson’s side, seemed destined to secure at least a share of the spoils when captain Michael Doyle restored parity following Miles Storey’s opener for the hosts.

However, a dramatic chain of events during the closing stages, which began with Wes Foderingham producing a memorable save to deny Conor Coady, presented Louis Thompson with the opportunity to claim a last gasp winner which the Swindon substitute duly took.

Despite winning 11 of their previous 14 outings, Doyle endorsed Clough’s decision to criticise aspects of United’s performance and underlined the importance of not allowing standards to slip.

“We won’t give up on anything but, even if we don’t get to where we want to be, it’s absolutely vital that we finish strongly and win as many games as we possibly can,” Doyle said. “It’s to finish strongly and you don’t have to look too far as to the reasons why.

“Leyton Orient did that last year and they picked up where they left off at the start of this one. That’s why they’ve been right up there all the way through and challenging for a top two spot.

“We didn’t finish well last time around and carried that on into this one. That’s not something we want to do again.

“We don’t like losing and, to be fair, we’ve not lost many of late. But we’ve got to make sure we don’t get into bad habits and focus on going on another good run.”

The very fact that United arrived at the County Ground even contemplating promotion is testament to the work Clough and his squad have accomplished in recent weeks.

Indeed, had only results under the 48-year-old’s tutelage counted, they would have travelled to Wiltshire ranked fifth rather than 10th.

But the facts and figures surrounding this contest, which saw Swindon claim a victory over their rivals from Yorkshire since 1997, also revealed those weaknesses yet to be addressed.

United’s defence is among the most effective in the division and has been breached only four times in nearly 19 hours of football.

But the likes of Tranmere Rovers, Crewe Alexandra and Notts County, who are battling against relegation, all boast more effective attacks.

Jose Baxter, whose solitary strike had put Swindon to the sword at Bramall Lane three months ago, departed through injury while Stefan Scougall was withdrawn after complaining of a tight hamstring. With Matt Hill and Bob Harris also nursing injuries and Harry Maguire absent through suspension, selecting a starting eleven to face Brentford threatens to be a relatively straightforward task.

“We’ve got high-standards here and that comes from the manager,” Doyle said. “If you don’t meet them then he’ll certainly let you know and, in a daft sort of way, everyone here appreciates that.

“You don’t want to let him down and he won’t allow you to let him down either. Together with all his staff, he wants to be successful and that’s why they are as demanding as they are.

“But that’s a good thing. They’re straight forward and they are honest.

“As a professional footballer, that’s something you appreciate. People telling you exactly how it is.”

“The manager had a right go at us at half-time,” Doyle continued. “He made it pretty clear he wasn’t happy with how we were going about things.

“You saw the response after that. We got up against Swindon and they didn’t know what to do. You really saw a difference.

“If there is anything to come out of this game it’s that we’ve got to start matches in the same way we’ve ended them lately. Because, if we do that, then I don’t think there’s many who can live with us. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that here.”

With Hill failing a fitness test on the eve of the game, John Brayford was forced to deputise for Maguire at centre half and went about his business with a modicum of fuss. However, with Ben Davies’s delivery from set-pieces proving United’s best weapon throughout a fractious opening period, the England Under-21 international’s absence still proved costly although Coady and Brayford both went close after Storey had seized upon Michael Smith’s pass.

“It’s easy to say that injuries and little niggles are catching up on us,” Doyle said. “But that’s not an excuse anyone here should be aking because it’s the same for everyone else.

“I thought ‘Bray’ did brilliant in there. Kieron likewise even though he was playing on the opposite side of the pitch to where he usually operates.

“Basically, we were just poor in the first-half. They passed the ball from side to side and didn’t really hurt us.

“But we weren’t as good or as positive as we should and, in fairness, have usually been.”

Foderingham, whose heroics had prevented the United duo from ensuring the match was all-square at the break, was powerless to stop Doyle claiming his third of the campaign following an intricate move involving three United players. Jamie Murphy burst down the flank before finding Freeman who in turn released Scougall. The Scottish midfielder skipped beyond his marker and squared a tantalising pass across the six yard box which Doyle, ghosting in at the far post, prodded home.

“Kieron did brilliant and so did Stefan,” the United captain said. “He took people on and drove at them.

“All I did was gamble at the far post and, fortunately, got my reward.”

With United now in the ascendancy, that should have been the cue for them to claim their second consecutive victory on the road following Tuesday’s win at Crawley. Chris Porter, who had replaced Baxter before half-time, headed Davies’s corner into the turf and over the crossbar despite, as Clough later argued, being impeded by a Swindon player.

Freeman should have been awarded a spot-kick after being felled by Troy Archibald-Henville as United went in search of a second but, much to Clough’s disgust, Hill ignored the full-back’s appeal.

Foderingham excelled himself again when Coady met Porter’s 89th minute cross but, as United wondered how the goalkeeper had scrambled away to safety, Thompson raced upfield and threaded a low shot beneath Mark Howard’s torso which spun agonisingly over the line.

“We were a little bit naive at the end,” Doyle said.

“We probably got too caught up in the game instead of making sure that, at the very least, we came away with a point.

“But if anything has come out of this match then it’s the importance of beginning games in the right fashion. Not being disappointing and perhaps even a little bit negative as we were here.

“That’s not what has got us up the table. We’ve got to go back to doing that.

“This is a lesson and it’s one we’ve got to take on board.”