Whenever Nigel Adkins sifts through the wreckage of a defeat, he always insists the first people Sheffield United must look at are themselves.
Billy Sharp obliged to a degree, blaming their vulnerability on the counter-attack rather than the erratic Andy Haines, for this loss to Millwall.
But the centre-forward, despite acknowledging United must shoulder most of the responsibility, could not resist casting an exasperated glance in the direction of the match official whose performance incurred the wrath of his teammates and manager alike.
“He’s had a bad game,” Sharp said. “It’s not the reason why we lost but he was off the pace all the way through. Throughout my career, I’ve never gone an entire game without having a foul awarded to me.
“I was getting wrestled to the floor out there and he never gave me one. I thought ‘surely he’s going to blow at some point?’ But he didn’t. So, yes, it was tough out there. I’m not going to deny it.”
Millwall made it so with Aiden O’Brien, one of seven academy graduates in Neil Harris’ matchday squad, scoring either side of Jose Baxter’s equaliser.
Strong in the tackle, disciplined in terms of shape and defensively resolute, the visitors prevented United from translating territorial advantage into genuine goalscoring chances, although, as George Saville’s second-half challenge on Dean Hammond highlighted, occasionally they over-stepped the mark.
“I think everybody saw there was a tackle in the second half,” Sharp said. “It was only because Dean didn’t roll about their geezer didn’t get booked. The Gaffer had a go at us for going down too much but every time one of their lads went down, they got a foul. Fair play to them, they won, and if they want to play like that all season then good luck. It’s frustrating and you try not to let it affect you but the longer it goes on it makes it hard not to.”
United, now making their fifth attempt to achieve the Championship status Millwall surrendered last season, had good reason to feel exasperated.
This was, as Adkins and Sharp conceded afterwards, an opportunity missed to close the gap on leaders Gillingham. Had an early attempt from Che Adams hit the back of the net instead of the post or Chris Basham’s close-range shot not been blocked as it made its way towards goal then the entire complexion of the contest would have been different.
Millwall’s opener was fortuitous - the ball beating Mark Howard after spiralling off the back of O’Brien’s head - but it highlighted one area of the game which, for United at least, is a concern.
“One of the keys is going 1-0 up at home,” Sharp said. “It makes a massive difference. Teams have to come out more and that gives us gaps to exploit. Overall, the signs, though, from my point of view, are good. We’ve got what it takes, definitely.”
Sharp can speak from experience, having been a member of the squads which Adkins guided to promotion at Scunthorpe and Southampton. United are imperfect, as some inconsistent results of late prove, but they possess enough quality to survive what the centre-forward reminded is a marathon, not a sprint.
“If we could have got the win they we’d have been on target for the two points per game average that gets promotions,” Sharp said. “We’re nearly there, as the league standings show, but still not quite good enough.”
“The fans want to see us at the top of the table now and, ideally, we’d like to be there as well. But there’s still lots of football to be played.”
“If you are in the top two on, say, Christmas Day then brilliant,” Sharp added. “But the only time it matters, being on top, is after the whistle has been blown on the final day. They key is being in the mix come January. Because, then, I’d really back us to go on a run.”
United troubled Millwall with their pace but lost the initiative when O’Brien turned home Shaun Cummings’ cross. Howard denied Saville with a fine reaction save before Neill Collins, who Adkins insisted had been fouled when the former Republic of Ireland under-21 international pounced, headed Baxter’s free-kick over.
The United substitute, whose introduction changed the dynamic of the hosts’ attack, lashed home a first-time effort moments after going close with a similar attempt, but a lapse in concentration, although again Adkins questioned whether Haines should have stopped play, allowed Shane Ferguson to find O’Brien at the far post for his and Millwall’s second.
“It’s frustrating,” Sharp said.”We’ve gone 1-0 down to a goal we thought we should have had a foul from. We got back in it. But we got done on the counter-attack again and it’s happened too many times now.”
Sheffield United: Howard 7, Freeman 7 (Flynn 86), Basham 7, Sharp 7, Done 6 (Baxter 46), Collins 6, Campbell-Ryce 7 (Sammon 67), Adams 7, K Wallace 6, McGahey 6, Hammond 6. Not used: Coutts, Woolford, Long, Kennedy.
Millwall: Archer 6, Cummings 6, Martin 6, Craig 7, Gregory 6 (Ferguson 73), Onyedinma 7 (Webster 90), Beevers 7, Morison 6, Saville 7, O’Brien 7 (L Martin 87), Thompson 7. Not used: Forde, Powell, Romeo, Pavey.
Referee: Andy Haines (Tyne and Wear).