It was bitterly disappointing, potentially costly and, according to the general consensus among most neutral observers, definitely undeserved.
But this defeat by Peterborough, which leaves them 14 points behind the automatic promotion places with 22 games remaining, taught Sheffield United a valuable lesson about the slim margins between success and failure in League One.
Lose focus for even a second, as they did after Jack Baldwin’s own goal had seemingly ensured the match would finish level, and you get punished. Usually in the most brutal, painful terms.
“We have got to do better than that,” Paul Coutts, dissecting the events which led to Martin Samuelsen’s late winner, said. “It was a throw-in at the halfway line and we have conceded from it. It’s really frustrating because, at 2-2 and attacking The Kop, we felt we were going to be able to push on and get the victory.
“To let them dance through our back four and get a strike off like that is ridiculous. The players have to take responsibility when we go out on the pitch. You’re obviously at your most vulnerable when you score so maybe we should have taken 2-2 for five minutes or so and then pushed from there.”
Emotion can be a powerful force in football. But, as both the United midfielder and his manager later acknowledged, it can cloud people’s judgement too. Against opponents boasting an array of attacking talent who had already twice taken the lead, the closing stages of Saturday’s called for cynicism and clinical detachment. Not a cavalry charge.
“We have created loads of chances, probably enough to win two games,” Coutts said. “To end up with a defeat is obviously frustrating.
“They do play some good stuff, as we did out there as well. In the first half we had a lot of chances, and they would have probably taken going in 1-1.
“But we needed to start the second half better, then at 2-2 we have to react better than that.”
United, as Coutts insisted, could have put the outcome beyond doubt before the break and knowing they will play worse and win this season only fuelled the sense of grievance in the home dressing room at Bramall Lane.
Peterborough, who opened the scoring when Conor Washington claimed his 14th of the campaign, are superb going forward but calamitous at the back.
Billy Sharp, who later struck the foot of the post following another lamentable piece of defending, equalised from the penalty spot after being fouled inside the area before David Edgar’s header was acrobatically saved by Ben Alnwick.
Erhun Oztumer restored the visitors’ advantage at the beginning of the second period with a superb piece of individual skill and the late drama ensued.
Adkins justifiably praised his team’s contribution to this absorbing fixture. And, analysing Samuelsen’s decisive input, correctly identified the reasons behind their downfall too.
“The players are well aware of my views on it,” he said. “There was enough experience out there to nullify that threat.
“Defensively, as a team, we let ourselves down there, even though we were strong in our resolve and produced some excellent stuff.”
“Sometimes, you do your preparation and then a completely different game transpires.
“Fair play to them, they are expansive and they move the ball around. They leave themselves open at the other end Our mind-set was to win the game. Two long-range goals went in. Be aware of it and set yourself up to keep them out.”
“Once we got back in, just make sure you don’t lose it,” Adkins continued.
“We had enough experience on the field of play to make sure that was the case. They’ll say it was a fantastic finish but, from our perspective, we’ll always look to see if we could have defended it any better.”
Styles make fights and, as predicted, this contest was compelling, with Peterborough, still the only club to average more than two goals per game in the competition, ruthlessly exploiting the fact they survived the first-half intact.
Washington, who Posh manager Graham Westley admitted is being courted by “some very big names”, landed the first telling blow when he beat George Long, who had previously conceded only once in four outings, from long range.
Sharp netted for the 11th time since joining the Blades last summer when he was tripped by Michael Smith and could later have been awarded a second spot-kick after being pushed in the back as he attempted to evade a marker.
With United in the ascendancy, Alnwick thwarted Edgar after Sharp had been denied by the woodwork, but they home side fell behind again when some excellent footwork created the time and space for Oztumer to loop home. Baldwin headed into his own net after Chris Basham had met Martyn Woolford’s centre but Samuelsen, on loan from West Ham, applied the coup de grace after weaving his way through.
“Martin showed his incredible ability to score a superb goal,” Westley said. “This is a very difficult environment and you have to play very well to win here.”
While sixth-placed Peterborough celebrated victory, United, in eighth, reflected on what might have been.
“I think we are playing well and there’s some consistency in our performances,” Coutts said.
“The performances are there and the results have been lately too, We need to bounce back and react to it.”
Sheffield United: Long 6, Brayford 7, Basham 7, Coutts 7, Sharp 7, Collins 6, Woolford 6, Sammon 6 (Baxter 56, 6), McEveley 6 (Adams 72), Edgar 6, Hammond 6. Not used: Howard, Flynn, Campbell-Ryce, Reed, K Wallace.
Peterborough United: Alnwick 7, Smith 6, Baldwin 6, Taylor 6, Oztumer 7, Maddison 6 (Samuelson 78), Almeida-Santos 6, Washington 7, Beautyman 6, Fox 6 (Wilson 46, 7), Forrester 6 (Addison 90). Not used: Angol, Henry, Coulibaly, Nicholson.
Referee: Darren Bond (Lancashire).