Bearded and slightly bewildered by the fact they did not win the game, Jack O’Connell stroked his freshly grown whiskers as he revealed Sheffield United have a new fan club back home in Liverpool.
“It’s a superstition, if we get over the line then I’ll shave it but, until then, it stays on,” he said. “I’m getting a bit of stick from the family about it and the missus doesn’t like it either but hopefully she won’t be living with it for too long.”
If Chris Wilder’s side had translated their superiority over Scunthorpe into three League One points, then, eight clear at the top of the table, O’Connell might have been tempted to reach for the razor blade. But, after being held to a draw by their nearest rivals, United’s lead over the visitors remains at five. An impressive rather than insurmountable lead third-placed Bolton Wanderers will hope to chip away when they travel to Bramall Lane this weekend.
Despite the final scoreline, and the fact they inexplicably fell behind, the DVD of this game will make unpleasant viewing for Phil Parkinson and his coaching staff when it arrives at the Macron Stadium later today.
A crowd of nearly 28,000 people watched United threaten to overwhelm Scunthorpe during a relentless first-half display before Paddy Madden pounced at the beginning of the second.
Billy Sharp immediately struck back, scoring his 21st of the season from close-range, before Harry Toffolo was dismissed for a foul on Kieron Freeman. By rights, given United’s dominance, that should have been the cue for Graham Alexander’s men to crumble.
Instead, it provided them with an opportunity to showcase the resilience which makes them genuine contenders despite being constantly written-off. Sharp forced a good save from Luke Daniels and John Fleck, who together with Chris Basham was United’s stand-out performer, twice went close.
But, having survived a scare themselves when Madden struck the woodwork, Wilder’s men were unable to make their numerical advantage count; substitute Jay O’Shea also striking a post deep into added time.
“Jay was wheeling away and getting ready to jump in the Kop at the end,” O’Connell said. “We’re disappointed only to take a point but, at the end of the season, we might look back on it as a big one. In reality, it could be really important. We’ve got to play Bolton and Scunthorpe and Bolton have got to play each other so there’s still a lot of football to be played and a long way to go yet.”
BEARDS EQUAL SELF-BELIEF
It is a measure of United’s confidence that O’Connell, rather than analysing the implications of this result, began his post-match duties with a discussion about facial hair. Wilder’s squad, as their manager is fond of reminding, are completely at ease despite the high stakes.
“We want more of this next year, bigger crowds and the like,” the defender said. “It’s great. Why is it a bad thing? Especially with the way our fans are. It’s great to see and be a part of.”
Their response to Madden’s goal was revealing too.
The Irishman’s strike, his first outside of Glanford Park since last term’s corresponding fixture, would probably have crushed the squad Wilder inherited in May. But the 49-year-old has built a team in his own uncompromising image after replacing Nigel Adkins at the helm. After a slow start to the campaign, United were seventh after drawing at Glanford Park five months ago. They would have started this match eight points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand if only results since then counted.
“The mental side of it is one of our biggest strengths,” O’Connell said. “We are showing that during games. Obviously there are some massive ones coming up and we’ll need that, a toughness, at this stage.”
A FRANK STATEMENT
Captain Stephen Dawson acknowledged Scunthorpe’s confidence had taken a knock after failing to win any of their three outings en route to South Yorkshire. It was a brutally honest but surprising admission which served to reinforce United’s belief that this was a fixture begging to be seized by the scruff of the neck.
Sharp blazed a first time shot over the crossbar following a fine piece of work by Daniel Lafferty during the opening exchanges before Mark Duffy dragged another attempt wide.
With Alexander and assistant Chris Lucketti gesticulating wildly, Scunthorpe struggled to keep United at bay before Madden became the first player to breach their rearguard in over six hours of football.
Sharp, earlier denied by a fine Murray Wallace tackle, responded immediately when Freeman, Fleck and James Hanson, who forced two fine blocks from Daniels, forced Scunthorpe onto the back foot.
Having seen Toffolo receive his second caution of the afternoon, Alexander could have been forgiven for fearing the worst. Instead, with United becoming increasingly anxious, the full-back’s departure coincided with Scunthorpe’s best spell of the game. Fleck and Sharp both went close, the latter seeing an angled shot smothered by Daniels, before Madden and O’Shea saw efforts rebound off the uprights.
Alexander was encouraged by Scunthorpe’s tenacity while Wilder, despite bemoaning United’s failure to keep their “shape” as they searched for a breakthrough, conceded it was a “pleasing” criticism to make.
“We started very well and on the front foot,” O’Connell said. “If we had put our chances away then it would have been a different game.
“We started the second (half) sloppily and we’ve got to cut that out. But we responded.”