Nigel Clough doesn’t like losing any game.
His expression, as an error-strewn first-half display condemned Sheffield United to defeat by Burton Albion, betrayed that fact.
But this is the time of year when managers genuinely can discuss “taking the positives” whatever the result.
And despite being comfortably beaten in their Bass Charity Vase contest at the Pirelli Stadium, Clough returned home from United’s first pre-season contest with plenty to digest.
“The biggest thing I learned is that we need another three weeks to prepare,” he said. “We were facing better opposition than ideally we’d have wanted to at this stage and you could see the lads, particularly those who played the first-half, were rusty.
“But it’s not about this result. The only result which matters at the moment is the one against Bristol City on August 9th. Our first match of the League One campaign.”
Diego DeGirolamo’s precoucious second-half display, an encouraging performance from debutant Harrison McGahey and Harry Maguire’s continued presence in the visitors’ squad despite Hull City’s efforts to capture the former England under-21 international were the three things which pleased Clough the most.
DeGirolamo, who saw injury stunt his development towards the end of last term, showcased the tricks and technique which, if correctly channelled, could earn him a place in United’s starting XI after being introduced following the interval while McGahey, whose move from Blackpool was confirmed on the eve of the game, looked assured alongside his fellow centre-half.
“Harry is under contract to us and that’s why he played,” Clough said. “We’ve not heard anything more from Hull and we’ve not received any more offers from them.
“If we thought something was imminent then he probably wouldn’t have been involved. So the fact he was tells you what our thinking on the matter is.
“He knows we want him to stay and not just for the next nine months. Ideally, we’d like him to be here for the next two or three years.”
“I thought his partnership with Harrison, who is only 18, was excellent,” Clough added. “There was real promise between those two and they looked comfortable together.
“Harrison showed out there why we wanted to bring him here. He’s got tons of potential and is only going to improve.
“Diego was sharp and he tried to make things happen after coming on. The same goes for Jose (Baxter) who I also thought played well.
“Naturally the score wasn’t what we’d have wanted. But, in the grand scheme of things I’m not really bothered about that.
“The point of this exercise was the get the lads out there and going again. Work on a few aspects of our game and try some different things out.”
The match itself was settled by defensive lapses and profligate finishing.
Albion’s Alex MacDonald opened the scoring with an emphatic fifth minute finish after evading his marker to meet Matty Palmer’s low cross before Stuart Beavon also made inroads along United’s right flank and provided the centre for Lucas Akins to double their advantage.
Leading 2-0 after 13 minutes, last term’s League Two play-off finalists continued to probe the embryonic partnership between Ben Davies and Jamal Campbell-Ryce until Mark Howard’s misjudgment midway through the first period presented Dominic Knowles with the opportunity to make it three. However, as the former Gainsborough Trinity and Harrogate Town centre- forward prepared to roll the ball into the empty net, Andy Butler intervened with an excellent sliding tackle.
United, who had seen Chris Porter go close seconds before MacDonald pounced, included three of their most promising youngsters in the team which started Saturday’s match. Two of them, Louis Reed and Connor Dimaio, pieced together an intricate move which ended with the latter dragging wide of Joe Anyon’s far post.
Knowles did score when Albion loanee Callum McFadzean, featuring against his parent club, swept a 43rd minute corner into the United box which should have been cleared but instead was headed home beyond Howard.
United, whose included trialist Robbie Crawford among 11 half-time changes, emerged as a more formidable proposition after the break with Stefan Scougall forcing Dean Lyness to save and Jose Baxter seeing a long-range attempt deflected wide.
DeGirolamo also created two good openings but on both occasions neglected to produce the killer touch while Maguire glanced a header across goal.
Louis Cutajar, however, made no mistake at the other end of the pitch during the closing stages.
United, who elected not to include Ryan Flynn (hamstring) and Marc McNulty in their plans after the attacking duo sustained slight injuries in training, continue their summer schedule at Northampton Town tomorrow night.
James Wallace, the former Tranmere Rovers midfielder, was also absent and, unlike his Scottish team mates, will not make the trip to Sixfields Stadium.
“There’s nothing to be gained from taking risks with people now,” Clough said. “We’d rather them miss a game now than four or five when the season proper gets underway.
“Ryan and Marc should hopefully be involved at Northampton. James probably won’t be but there’s nothing serious to worry about there. He had a few knocks last season before he came here and really, because we’ve been working hard, it’s just a bit of a hangover from that.”