The League One table, by George Long’s own admission, does not make particularly pleasant viewing for Sheffield United right now but he remains convinced it will boast an entirely different complexion come May.
If Nigel Adkins’ side are to force themselves back into the race for automatic promotion, however, they must do it the hard way and show the same grit, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness which prevented Walsall from running away with this game.
“There are a lot of lads here who have been in play-off campaigns and quite a few who have been promoted too,” Long said.
“They know the feeling, they know what it’s like, the challenges you are going to face and how best to overcome them along the way. That knowledge and experience will come into the reckoning later on, I’m sure.”
Only 18 days past his 22nd birthday, Long is still a baby in goalkeeping terms. The youngster has spent long periods of his career seemingly battling his own mind as well as opposition forwards but, again selected ahead of the more senior Mark Howard, enjoyed a coming-of-age moment here.
The triple save which prevented Kieron Morris, Tom Bradshaw and finally Romaine Sawyers from opening the scoring was crucial as Dean Smith’s team slipped effortlessly through the gears.
Having denied Walsall the luxury of an early breakthrough, it also confirmed that Long, who helped Motherwell survive an even more ferocious onslaught during last season’s Scottish Premier League play-off against Rangers, has returned from his loan spell at Fir Park a more confident and hard-nosed player.
“Yes, it was probably one of my best saves. It’s rare that you get three in a row like that,” he said.
“Everything happened pretty quickly but, fortunately, I was able to keep the ball out.
“It’s important to keep a level head when you are out there playing and not to get sucked in by the roar from the fans. You need to stay focused.”
Bradshaw, who is being monitored by Birmingham City, did beat Long after combining well with Sawyers soon after the break. Smith expressed his disappointment afterwards that third-placed Walsall, who saw Paul Downing and Milan Lalkovic hit the woodwork, had not “put things to bed” after dominating most of the first half.
But United, now 11th and eight points behind Gillingham in second, were resilient and, when Conor Sammon’s introduction gave them a more physical presence, wrestled the momentum back.
Now it was the visitors’ turn to dominate, with both Che Adams and Bob Harris having strong penalty appeals turned down. Walsall showed football can be a thing of beauty but United demonstrated it is about bottle too.
“There’s a belief in our own qualities, that’s where the spirit comes from,” Long said. “Because we’ve got that belief, we know there’s always going to be something in the game for us, no matter what.”
Walsall and United are polar opposites in terms of size, stature and, most tellingly, stability. Six different people have taken charge of the visitors since Smith arrived at the Banks’s Stadium in 2011.
Saturday’s contest was his 258th match as manager. The average number overseen by those in the United hotseat during that period is a meagre 39.
Little wonder, while Adkins continues to try to fathom a way of utilising a squad largely of somebody else’s making, Walsall pass and move with a telepathy only time can buy.
Although Jose Baxter’s intervention threatened to change the course of the fixture, it was a player Adkins acquired from Leicester City last month who, together with Long, helped ensure United were still within striking distance when Baxter pounced.
“Dean (Hammond) has been fantastic for us since coming here,” Long said. “People probably don’t see a lot of the work he does but he made so many important moves and headers.
“He covers so much ground and he was still doing that in the final five minutes of the game.
“Just because it’s not a case of rifling the ball into the top corner, it doesn’t get as much credit or recognition as it should. But we appreciate it.”
Smith mistakenly accused Jamal Campbell-Ryce of “going down, shall we say, easily,” when Adams hurdled the goalkeeper before being bundled over James O’Connor as he prepared to tap the ball into an empty net.
Then, referee Geoff Eltringham also ignored Harris’ appeal that his cross had been handled in the box. Sammon, who had set up Baxter’s strike, then sent Adams through but O’Connor again intervened before exchanging chances with Neill Collins.
“They threw everything they had at us but, for the most part, we limited them to long-range shots,” Long said. “There was great unity from the back four .”
Walsall: Etheridge, Demetriou 6, O’Connor 7, Downing 6, Chambers 7, Bradshaw 7, Sawyers 7, Henry 6, Lalkovic 7 (Cook 81), Morris 7 (Forde 77), Evans 7. Not used: Taylor, Baxendale, Forde, MacGillivray, Preston, Flanagan, Cook.
Sheffield United: Long 7, Freeman 6, Harris 6, Basham 7, Coutts 6, Sharp 6 (Sammon 62), Baxter 7, Collins 7, Campbell-Ryce 6 (Scougall 72), Adams 6, Hammond 7. Not used: Howard, Done, McEveley, Reed, McGahey.
Referee: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).