Two goals down with less than a quarter of an hour remaining, Sheffield United appeared destined to suffer a result even more surprising than the fact it was Jose Baxter who received the red card which, Steven Pressley later insisted, proved the pivotal moment of this game.
But a remarkable comeback, driven by late strikes from Michael Doyle and Jamie Murphy, saw Nigel Clough’s side snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat during 96 minutes of fractious and, on occasion, feisty football.
With United still battling for automatic promotion and Coventry City fighting against the drop, the final outcome did little to help either take a step towards achieving their respective aims.
However, after United spent nearly the entire match at a numerical disadvantage, there was no doubt about who finished the happier of these two teams.
“We were very lucky, being fair to Coventry, because they played really well,” Doyle, the United captain, said. “Us going down to 10 men didn’t help but they started the game well.
“In the end getting a point felt like a win, it was massive for us. I really thought we were going to kick-on and win.”
Doyle, who spent seven seasons wearing the sky blue of City before swapping the Ricoh Arena for Bramall Lane, embodied the tenaciousness and indefatigable spirit which enabled United, despite being way below par and disjointed, to haul themselves back from the brink following Dominic Samuel’s brace.
Earlier, Baxter’s ill discipline had earned him only the second red card of his professional career and first for four years. Better known for his creative rather than combative qualities, the midfielder was dismissed after a poor challenge on Adam Barton sparked a furious reaction from the City - and later United - bench.
“We’ve got no complaints,” Clough said. “You can’t tackle like that these days and I don’t know what was going through Jose’s head.
“But we’ve got quite a few issues with a some other decisions, though.
“The lad who scored the goal had two handballs. Then he got another yellow for a foul on the touchline.”
Clough, who warned Baxter was by no means guaranteed an immediate return following suspension, acknowledged he had apologised afterwards, before adding caustically: “When Jose made the tackle, they got four or five of their players around the referee pretty quickly.
“Their manager was also running on the pitch. I’m sure ex-Premier League official Alan Wiley, who was sat in the stands as the assessor, will be reporting that.”
Beforehand, this would have been a case of two points dropped for United who remain fifth in the League One table entering tomorrow’s meeting with Rochdale. But, in the context of the fixture, it was definitely one gained.
Baxter’s dismissal provided City with the exactly the source of encouragement Clough had warned could prove costly against opponents now placed 21st and without a win in seven outings.
Samuel, on loan from Reading, opened the scoring with a neat finish before doubling the visitors’ lead soon after the restart having initially been thwarted by Iain Turner.
But Doyle, who had earlier missed a glorious chance to edge United ahead after failing to connect with Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s cross, reduced the deficit with an instictive shot after Mat Done saw an attempt scrambled off the line. Murphy was also involved in the build-up and duly restored parity with a deflected effort.
“We showed bravery, we dominated, and obviously the sending-off is a turning point,” Pressley said. “We found ourselves 2-0 up and I’m thinking this is a perfect performance.
“When they scored the first goal we didn’t show composure. When you’re desperate to win there’s a nervousness that sets in.
“We didn’t show enough experience and that’s because we’re a young team but the lads gave everything out there.
“It can be hard against 10) because Sheffield United knew they had nothing to lose. And they showed that mentality.”
Doyle also cited United’s greater match-craft as being a crucial factor.
“With the team spirit we have got going since last year, the lads - even at 2-0 - were saying we can get back into this,” he said. “There was a real drive and determination amongst the boys, and that showed in the end.
“If you look at the start of the season, we didn’t play well, but we had a great team spirit, with great characters who never know when they are beat.
“We have a real determination to try and get promoted, everybody wants to be part of that type of club.”
Pressley’s career has been shaped by controversy.
He represented both Rangers and Celtic as a player, arriving at Parkhead after parting company with Heart of Midlothian following a spat with then major shareholder Vladimir Romanov.
Appointed City’s manager a month before their slide into adminstration and subsequent move to Sixfields Stadium, he has again found himself under intense scrutiny following City’s return to Warwickshire, albeit, on this occasion, because of matters largely beyond his control.
Doyle added: “I was delighted with the goal, but I played for Coventry for a long time, so it was mixed emotions a little bit. My main priority is Sheffield United, to try and drive this team on and get promoted, but I want Coventry to stay up and do well.
“That’s where I am from now, my kids are there. I had a long time at Coventry. I loved it, it’s a fantastic club. It’s just a shame what’s going on there, with the owners and things.
“We had to work hard, because they moved the ball well; they have got some good players.
“But we managed to get back in because they played so tight in midfield, and when we went down to 10 men I was surprised they didn’t open up and go 4-4-2.”
While Coventry contemplate the possibility of sliding into the fourth tier for the first time in their existence, United head to Spotland hoping to stretch their unbeaten run to five games.
“We’re still positive,” Clough said. “We didn’t want to lose it having come back from 2-0 down because that would have been tragic but we tried to nick something as well.
“It will do our belief good because when we’re in a situation again, albeit hopefully not with 10 men, we know we can come back. Also, it keeps a little bit of momentum going.
“We’ve seen with some other results that you can lose it just as quickly as it’s possible to gain.”
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Turner 6, Harris 6, Brayford 7, Basham 6, Doyle 7, Murphy 6, Baxter 4, Done 6***, Coutts 6**, McEveley 7, Campbell-Ryce 6*. Substitutes: McNulty***(86), Willis, Davies, Reed, Freeman**(70), Kennedy**(46) 7, Adams.
COVENTRY CITY: Jones 6, Fleck 7, Williams 6**, O’Brien 6, Samuel 8, Barton 6*, Phillips 7, Tudgay 7, Martin 6, Pennington 6, Stokes 6***. Substitutes: Burge, Webster, Jackson, Turgott, Haynes***(73), Finch*(53) 6, Thomas**(53) 6.
MANAGERS’ VIEW - Nigel Clough: “To play with 10 men for 80 minutes of the game, to be 2-0 down with 15 minutes to go and to get a point is a remarkable effort by the players. We’ve got no arguments with it [Jose Baxter’s red card], you can’t tackle like that these days.”
MANAGERS’ VIEW - Steven Pressley: “When they scored the first goal we didn’t show composure. When you’re desperate to win there’s a nervousness that sets in. The ironic thing is, prior to the game, away from home against an in-form side, 2-2 would be a very credible result. But after our performance for 75 minutes we’re disappointed.”
HERO: Michael Doyle and Jamie Murphy scored the goals which ensured Sheffield United took something from this match. Dominic Samuel, the Coventry City striker on loan from Reading, impressed for the visitors after netting twice.
KEY MOMENT: Coventry City should have been coasting when Dominic Samuel doubled their lead against opponents reduced to 10 men in the 16th minute. Instead, they crumbled and ended up allowing Sheffield United a route back into the game.
VIEWPOINT: Beforehand, this would have been a disappointing result for Sheffield United. In the context of the game, however, it was more than creditable. They might not have been at their best but Nigel Clough’s players showed great determination and spirit.
REF WATCH: Darren Drysdale (Lincolnshire). On occasion, he looked like losing control.