When the time comes to write the obituary of Sheffield United’s season, the cause of death seems increasingly likely to be recorded as a thousand self-inflicted cuts.
Nigel Adkins commended Millwall’s craftiness and cunning after Chris Taylor’s second-minute goal proved enough to settle this otherwise colourless affair at The Den.
But the frustration etched across his face as he rued yet another missed opportunity to close the gap on the play-off positions betrayed the fact that, for the umpteenth time since taking charge nine months ago, Adkins knew the visitors had been the architects of their own demise - a habit which, David Edgar later acknowledged, will condemn them to another yet another year in League One unless addressed and kicked soon.
“We knew coming here was going to be tough,” the centre-half conceded. “Because of that, we needed to be on our toes. Making such a poor start cost us because, performance and effort-wise, we did enough to win the match.”
The veracity of that statement must be open to debate after United, now 12th in the table with only nine fixtures remaining, huffed and puffed without ever really threatening to overwhelm Neil Harris’ side, save for a brief period of pressure early in the second half.
But the visitors did enjoy enough possession to have claimed a point. The fact they failed to do so could be attributed to a variety of different factors, including lack of assertiveness, attention to detail and, as Adkins conceded, an inability to combat Millwall’s street-smart approach.
Lee Gregory and Steve Morison, a centre-forward you suspect gorges on raw meat rather than grilled chicken or pasta before games, imposed their authority on proceedings from the first whistle. It was not until Ryan Flynn and John Brayford both saw shots blocked as the hour mark beckoned that United wrestled back control.
“The way we started wasn’t good enough,” Edgar continued. “And everything else stemmed from that.”
With Edgar set to miss the next two games after reporting for international duty with Canada and Alex Baptiste tweaking a hamstring soon after the re-start, the problem of how best to plug United’s porous rearguard now appears even more complex.
Adkins admitted he is loath to fill the void created by Baptiste’s absence - “We don’t know how serious it is yet. However, if his hamstring is the issue then he’s probably looking at a few weeks out” - by entering the transfer market, but United’s profligacy in attack also represents cause for concern.
Billy Sharp, their leading goalscorer, worked tirelessly as usual. Alongside him, though, Conor Sammon struggled to make his presence felt after being selected ahead of Che Adams.
The former Republic of Ireland international is a third-tier version of Tore Andre Flo: A talented footballing conundrum who, despite his hulking frame, does not pack a concussive punch.
The same can not be said, Adkins admitted, of either Gregory or Morison.
“Our back three struggled to deal with them,” lamented the United manager. “They were a handful and set the tone.
“It was a simple ball over the top every time. That’s not being disrespectful, because it worked. Millwall were clever because, whenever we seemed like getting on top, they slowed things down or broke them up. I’d like to think we’d have done the same in their position.”
United, though, never gave themselves the chance. The contest was barely 120 seconds old when Ben Thompson sent Morison darting clear before his centre reached Taylor who, signed on loan from Blackburn Rovers 48 earlier, duly swept home unmarked.
Gregory, who was released by United as a youngster before resurrecting his career at Staveley Miners Welfare and Halifax Town, forced the first of two fine saves from George Long before Morison also tested the United goalkeeper’s reactions.
When Sammon showed Millwall’s back four a clean pair of heels after the break, Long’s heroics appeared destined to become a pivotal moment of the match, Instead, with the resulting cross was intercepted before reaching Sharp, they were reduced to an epitaph.
“Conor did so well getting through,” Adkins said. “He showed great acceleration but couldn’t get the ball across.”
Sharp, who had taken up a perfect position on the edge of the six yard box, recovered his poise to test Jordan Archer at the near post but saw a low drive parried away to safety.
Millwall remain fifth after stretching their unbeaten run to six outings. United, meanwhile, enter Friday’s meeting with Crewe Alexandra having won four and lost five of their last 12.
“We need to get consistent results and the key to that is consistent performances,” Edgar said. “We’ve got to go on a winning run and string some victories together.”
Millwall: Archer 6, Martin 6, Gregory 7 (O’Brien 83), Beevers 6, Webster 6, Ferguson 7 (Upson 90), Taylor 7, Morison 7, Thompson 6, Abdou 6, Romeo 6. Not used: Forde, Edwards, Williams, Onyedinma, Nelson.
Sheffield United: Long 7, Brayford 6, Basham 6, Flynn 6, Sharp 7, Done 6, Sammon 6 (Adams 72), Baptiste 6 (McEveley 48, 6), Cuvelier 6 (Coutts 67, 6), Edgar 6, Hammond 6. Not used: Howard, Calvert-Lewin, Whiteman, Kelly.
Referee: Oliver Langford (West Midlands).