Another missed opportunity, another disappointing result and, at the end of it all, confirmation that Sheffield United will be spending another season in League One.
Nigel Adkins’ team travelled to Coventry City knowing that, depending upon results elsewhere, a win could have seen them enter this weekend’s final round of games boasting a serious chance of snatching the remaining play-off berth.
Barnsley and Gillingham fulfilled their side of the bargain by both dropping points but, when referee Andrew Davies called time at the Ricoh Arena, so had the visitors too.
Adkins, whose first 10 months in charge has proved a taxing experience, cut a defiant figure afterwards as he promised lessons will be learned and to build a squad better equipped to cope with the demands of third-tier football next time around.
Poor Ben Whiteman, handed the unenviable task of explaining this defeat only weeks after graduating from the club’s academy, simply looked distraught.
“We’re gutted, totally gutted,” he said. “Especially when we found out everything else had gone for us. It’s just devastation in the dressing room.”
Whiteman, among a group of young players Adkins believes can help reinvigorate United’s squad, acknowledged a series of poor displays over the autumn period had left them scrambling to make up ground as early as February and March.
Nevertheless, despite some recent progress, the season’s problems extend far beyond an unfortunate habit of making painfully slow starts.
Adkins, United’s fourth permanent manager since being relegated from the Championship five years ago, must discover a way of addressing them without causing the type of widespread upheaval which has contributed to the length of that stay.
“Dean Wilkins, the first-team coach, told us ‘remember this feeling because it’s horrible’ afterwards,” continued Whiteman. “We came here expecting to win, the fans came here expecting us to win and we’ve let them down. We are the ones to blame. We have to take responsibility and I don’t ever want to feel this way again.”
“The academy is getting noticed,” he added. “The gaffer has put his faith in me and a couple of others too. I can’t thank him enough for giving me a chance but my performance today wasn’t good enough to repay him for that. Hopefully, though, it will stand me in good stead because it’s all about next season now.”
Adkins, whose former club, Scunthorpe, arrive at Bramall Lane on Sunday with their own top-six hopes still intact, later revealed preparations for the 2016/17 campaign have already begun in earnest.
“They’ve started,” he said. “Very much so.”
Alex Baptiste will leave a gaping hole in defence if, as expected, he returns to Middlesbrough when his loan agreement expires, while Joe Cole’s speed of thought and Adam Armstrong’s speed of foot exposed the lack of genuine pace across United’s midfield.
Given the inevitable consequences for the club’s finances, Adkins will need to show imagination in the transfer market and urgency to win back supporters’ trust. Strategic, joined-up thinking, something which has been in short supply over much of the past decade at all levels of the club, is required.
“There are things we will implement, and things we have already been implementing, that should put us in a much stronger position going forward,” Adkins said. “We’ve fallen short. Lots of things have happened and lots of things have been done. There’s still work to do. Yes, people will have different opinions, but we have to make sure we are ready for the season coming up.”
United, previously unbeaten in five outings and having seemingly developed the knack of keeping clean sheets, made the journey south quietly confident of beating their injury-ravaged opponents.
But it took less than 10 minutes for their plans to unravel as Marc-Antoine Fortune’s fortuitous effort and a strike from Andy Rose enabled City to seize control. Billy Sharp reduced the deficit by scoring his 21st of the season after being tripped by Aaron Martin in the box but, as United’s work became increasingly desperate, substitute Ruben Lameiras put the contest beyond their reach.
City manager Tony Mowbray said: “It was great to finish the way we did. We came out very brightly.”
“I thought we regrouped well,” Adkins countered. “It would have been very easy for the lads to go the other way.
“At half-time, we still had the belief that if we kept knocking on the door we could do something.”
The hosts, who climb above United into ninth, benefited from a huge slice of luck when Armstrong’s shot hit Fortune and wrong-footed George Long.
Rose converted in more eyecatching fashion after being released by George Thomas’ pass. United, who arrived in Warwickshire having conceded only once in nearly eight hours of football, saw Che Adams and Ryan Flynn go close before Sharp was on target from the penalty spot.
Matt Done and Adams saw efforts blocked as United, missing Dean Hammond and Mark Howard due to personal reasons, pressed for an equaliser only to see Lameiras pounce late on.
“This club shouldn’t be where it is,” Whiteman, who saw fellow academy graduate Graham Kelly make his debut, said. “We’ve got to knuckle down and make sure we do it next year. No ifs or buts.”
Coventry City: Charles-Cook 6, Vincelot 6, Martin 6, Stephens 7, Hunt 7, Cole 7, Fleck 6, Fortune 6 (Lameiras 78), Rose 6 (Phillips 69, 6), G Thomas 6 (Jones 65), Armstrong 6. Not used: Gadzhev, Tudgay, Harries, Addai.
Sheffield United: Long 7, Baptiste 6, Edgar 6, McEveley 6, Basham 6, Coutts 6, Whiteman 6 (Reed 85), Flynn 6 (Woolford 66, 6), Done 6 (Kelly 90), Sharp 7, Adams 6. Not used: Sammon, McGahey, Brooks, Ramsdale.
Referee: A Davies (Hampshire).