The team which scored the highest percentage of headed goals last season versus one whose vulnerability at set-pieces threatens to undermines its push for the Championship next term.
The portents, from Sheffield United’s perspective at least, appeared ominious even ahead of this trip to Priestfiield Stadium where opponents languishing towards the wrong of the table but famed for their aerial prowess lay in wait.
But what should really stick in the visitors’ craw is that they, not a robust but ultimately limited Gillingham side, were the architects of a result which left them seventh in the League One table.
Nigel Clough’s players were combative. Unfortunately they were crude and, above all else, careless too.
“Sometimes, even when things aren’t going that well, you’ve just got to make sure you win or even draw ugly,” Paul Coutts, the United midfielder, said. “You have to make sure that you take something away from the game, dust yourself down and move on.
“It’s definitely within our capability. Anyone who knows what we’ve got at our disposal understands that.
“But we’ve got to start showing that on a regular basis now out there on the pitch, be brutally honest with ourselves and acknowledge what we did wrong.”
They need look no further than the catalogue of errors which gifted Gillingham their first goal of an afternoon bookended by Justin Edinburgh’s coronation as manager and three precious points. Chasing the game and with seconds remaining, leaving Cody McDonald unmarked in the penalty area was probably excusable. The sight of Mark Howard being left exposed when susbstitute Jermaine McGlashan pounced upon Max Ehmer’s hopeful punt upfield definitely not.
“We can’t concede goals like that if we want to get promoted,” Coutts, among the handful of United players to return home with their reputations intact, admitted.
“We’ve not been outplayed or anything like that. But our final pass was sloppy and we didn’t get a goal when we were on top. That, whatever else went on, is what we’ve ended up paying the price for.”
Fortunately, with 20 matches of their season remaining, it was not terminally heavy. Nevertheless, one aspect of the managerial art is recognising when a disappointing result can simply be attributed to human fallibility or represents part of a worrying trend.
United’s performance was not completely devoid of merit. They made better use of possession than Gillingham and, through Chris Basham and Jay McEveley, nulified the physical threat posed by Edinburgh’s charges well.
But Clough, correctly describing the goals conceded here and against Preston North End three days earlier as “complete gifts”, clearly falls into the latter camp.
“Maybe we’ll have to stop giving youngsters a chance and just stick with the experienced lads,” he said.
“But the challenge is that we’re trying to integrate them and the only way that they’re going to learn is by actually being out there on the pitch.
“It’s all dependent on injuries and it’s something we’re going to have to look at. Scouggs (Stefan Scougall) would be in but he’s injured. James Wallace would be in, but he’s injured. Probably Ryan Flynn too.
So, what we’ve got to do, is use the good squad that we have as best we can.”
“We coped with the physical aspect,” Clough added. “But there was a lack of thought and a lack of care.
“That’s something we’ve got to learn better, that knowledge of how to win a game or, on the flip side, not lose it in the 86th minute.”
United received an early warning of what was to come when John Marquis connected with man and ball during an early challenge with Howard before handing Gillingham a taste of their own medicine when Jake Hessenthaler, whose father, Andy, relinquished control of first-team affairs yesterday, scrambled off the line from John Brayford.
Stuart Nelson floundered under several high crosses, most notably those delivered by Ben Davies, before redeeming himself when United’s Che Adams attempted to thread an angled drive between his outstretched palm and the far post.
The Gillingham goalkeeper was called into action again, smothering fellow teenager Louis Reed’s shot at the feet of Jamie Murphy, before McDonald, who later smashed an attempt against the crossbar, netted for the seventh time in 11 outings following McGlashan’s cross. The ex-Staines and Cheltenham attacker had earlier broken the deadlock after beating Howard, advancing into No Man’s Land to Ehmer’s clearance.
“We have to go back to that ‘do not lose’ mentality. Our final ball was nowhere near, especially when you look at the quality we had out there on the pitch,” Clough said.
“Jamie (Murphy) got into some great positions and got nothing for doing that because there were too many aimless passes.
“The three in midfield can cancel each other out. So, in those situations, you’ve got to be brave and look for the spare men, the full-backs, to join in. But they were as poor as everyone else.”
“We played well enough, after the first 10 minutes, to get a goal or two,” Clough added. “But we have’t got that belief at the moment.
“The only way you get that back is by coming through games like this with the absolute bare minimum.
“It’s not been a theme. There were off days for too many people.”
GILLINGHAM: Nelson 6, Garmston 6, Egan 6, Ehmer 6, Loft 6, Hessenthaler 7, Marquis** 6, McDonald 7, Pritchard* 6, Dack 6, Hoyte 7. Substitutes: Legge, McGlashan**(79), Morris, Galbraith*(44, 6), German, Norris, Dickenson.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Harris 6, Brayford 6, Basham 7, Murphy 6, Baxter** 6, Davies* 6, Coutts 7, McEveley 6, Reed 6, Adams*** 6. Substitutes: Doyle, McNulty***(84), Campbell-Ryce*(62, 6), Turner, Freeman, Kennedy, Holt**(76).