Representing Sheffield United can be a taxing experience.
Wins are greeted with a nonchalent shrug of the shoulders; draws or defeats, especially at this stage of the season, with the type of bitter recrimination which would test the patience of a saint.
After a result which provoked howls of derision from the home supporters, Nigel Clough’s side are facing their latest and possibly greatest test of character since the League One season began seven months ago. To pass, and ensure it does not end in disappointment, he insisted they must demonstrate a combination of courage, craft and guile.
“The psychological aspect is more important now than at any other point,” Clough said. “Physically, you’re shattered so you’ve got to think even more about how you’re playing the games.
“You’ve got to use the crowd when it’s going for you and when it’s not pretend people aren’t there. You’ve got to be strong enough to ignore it and just focus on the job in hand.”
United, as their manager said during a frank post-match inquest, need to place greater importance on getting the minutae right too. Fleetwood Town, who prevailed courtesy of two well-taken but wholly preventable first-half strikes, might be the minnows of the division. But they are too good to require a helping hand.
“It’s very simple,” Clough said. “There’s nothing complicated about it.
“We are giving goals away and again found ourselves chasing a two-goal deficit. That’s very difficult to do at any time and, if you’re doing that, then it’s going to be very difficult to win matches.
“Teams aren’t carving us apart.
They aren’t creating lots and lots of chances.
“It’s just individual errors that are costing us back there. Attention to detail if you like.”
Having completed 11 fixtures in five weeks, that carelessness is possibly a symptom of mental fatigue.
Nevertheless, with top-six qualification still wide open, United cannot expect opponents to show sympathy.
Fleetwood ruthlessly exploited the chances which came their way before adopting an increasingly calculating approach when Matt Done, dovetailing well with new loan signing Steven Davies, reduced the deficit with his sixth goal in only eight outings just before the interval.
Iain Turner, again deputising for the injured Mark Howard, will be disappointed not to have kept out at least one of Fleetwood’s efforts although United, who also saw Jamie Murphy and Michael Doyle go close, enjoyed enough possession to have ultimately claimed a share of the spoils.
“In the past, it’s been the back four, but out there Iain Turner was the culprit,” Clough acknowledged.
“But we’ll stick with him and build him up again, there’s no doubt about it.
“That’s the way it is with goalkeepers, I’m afraid. He’s been outstanding since coming in, done ever so well.
“But when they make a mistake, it’s usually costly.”
“We were delighted with Steven’s contribution,” Clough added. “Matty got another goal and Steven put his foot in and held the ball up well.
“We were certainly too deep today. Murph did well but he was 15 yards inside our half, picking the ball up, at times.”
Clough knows full well that a home crowd desperate for Championship football can be a difficult beast to please.
Criticised for being too conservative by some supporters, he in fact boasts a better win percentage than all but one of his permanent predecessors in the post. Intriguingly, with injuries forcing United to temporarily shelve the 4-5-1 formation which has been so effective in the past, the introduction of a two-pronged attack has had a detrimental effect on their ability to dictate the course of a game.
“The other thing, with the formation, is we don’t control things as much,” Clough, suffering successive home defeats for the first time since taking charge, said. “Everyone goes on about playing two up front. We do that and lose the but nobody mentions it.”
Despite the hysteria surrounding last weekend’s setback, fifth-placed United remain a talented squad unbalanced by selection issues and suffering a poor run of form.
With Chris Basham collecting his 10th caution of the campaign before the break, rectifying the defensive issues which have undermined their efforts of late will test the coaching staff’s tactical acumen given the fact Jay McEveley could be poised to join Terry Kennedy on the treatment table before this weekend’s visit to Scunthorpe.
“I’m delighted that we don’t have a game in midweek,” Clough admitted.
“The only problem is that Chris is out now and that’s a blow with Terry Kennedy injured.
“Jay’s shoulder popped out when he got shoved into the boards early in the second-half. It’s a historic issue with him but he’ll tell us if it’s manageable.
“He showed his mettle by carrying on, we actually think it popped back in, because Craig Alcock was stripped and ready to go.”
Fleetwood’s rise up the English football pyramid is real Roy of the Rovers stuff. A decade ago they were facing Stone Dominoes, Colne and Bacup Borough in the North West Counties League. Two days ago, they travelled to South Yorkshire having earned the right to compete against United as equals following six promotions in 10 years.
Josh Morris beat Turner with a perfectly angled effort after being released by Jamie Proctor before Nick Haughton converted in equally emphatic fashion.
United, who had earlier seen Davies go close with a stooping header, pulled one back when Basham helped on Jose Baxter’s corner.
Fleetwood goalkeeper Chris Maxwell was booked for time-wasting with more than an hour left before thwarting Doyle for the second time with a fine reaction save.
Earlier, Murphy’s appeals for a penalty had been waved away by referee Darren Deadman following a tangle with Conor McLaughlin just inside the box.
“We know what we’ve got to do better,” Clough, who saw a six match unbeaten run come to an end against Peterborough last week, said. “But we know we can do it because we’ve done it numerous times in the past.
“The crossing and final ball was disappointing at times and that’s something we’ve got to work on.”
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Turner 6, Harris 6***, Brayford 6, Basham 6, Doyle 7, Murphy 7, Baxter 6*, Done 7, Coutts 6, McEveley 6, S Davies** 7. Substitutes: Alcock, McNulty**(79), Willis, B Davies, Reed, Adams*(69) 6, K Wallace***(87).
FLEETWOOD TOWN: Maxwell 6, McLaughlin 6, Murdoch 6, Roberts 6, Evans 6, Schumacher 7, Morris 7***, Chicksen 6, Proctor 7, Jordan 5*, Haughton 7**. Substitutes: Pond*(11) 6, Dobbie**(77), Ball, McAlinden, Hunter, Crainey***(84), Springthorpe.
MANAGERS’ VIEW - Nigel Clough: “Teams aren’t carving us apart. They aren’t creating lots and lots of chances. It’s just individual errors that are costing us back there. Attention to detail if you like.”
MANAGERS’ VIEW - Graham Alexander: “For us to come here, to beat Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, is testament to how hard the lads worked. But they worked with good discipline too.”
HERO: Matt Done worked his socks off in attack and was rewarded with his latest goal for Sheffield United towards the end of the first-half. Jamie Murphy was also a threat and saw a penalty appeal waved away after the break.
KEY MOMENT: Forget the size of their home gates or recent progression through non-league. Fleetwood Town are a League One club on merit. Sheffield United handed them a foothold in the game by conceding two preventable first-half goals in 10 minutes.
VIEWPOINT: Sheffield United must do better at the back but they also need to improve the quality of their crossing too. Numerous promising situations went to waste because quality of the final pass was poor.
REFEREE WATCH: Darren Deadman (Cambridgeshire). Sheffield United had three players cautioned - Chris Basham, Jay McEveley and Che Adams - while Fleetwood Town collected four yellow cards. Basham’s booking means he will not miss his team’s next two games.