STEVENAGE’S cocktail of blood, guts and gamesmanship has intoxicated some of League One’s leading names this season.
But it was a combination of poor concentration and carelessness which meant Sheffield United became the latest contenders to perish in the sporting graveyard that is Broadhall Way.
With the score delicately poised at a goal apiece, this robust encounter appeared destined to end in deadlock until, for the umpteenth time in what is proving to be a bitter-sweet season for the South Yorkshire club, the Blades conspired to engineer their own downfall.
Drawing with a team which has also accounted for Sheffield Wednesday and leaders Charlton Athletic in recent weeks would have been a creditable if uninspiring achievement for Danny Wilson’s fifth-placed side.
Instead, a comedy of errors in which Stephen Quinn and Lecsinel Jean-Francois both assumed starring roles set in motion the brief but
costly chain of events which allowed Scott Laird to deliver his devastating punchline from the penalty spot.
“It‘s difficult to take,” Matthew Lowton, the United defender, said. “Difficult because we should have come away with something, only for a lack of concentration to mean we didn’t.
“We knew what to expect coming here and we had been really well prepared. It was physical and there was lots going on. It looked as if we’d handled and coped with all of that. We should have made sure we got something.”
Stevenage manager Graham Westley revels in his reputation for mind-games and chicanery.
United heeded Wilson’s warning about being dragged into a psychological battle but - with their most technically gifted midfielder, Kevin McDonald, consigned to the bench in favour of the combative Michael Doyle - lacked the vision to trouble opponents who, despite obvious limitations, fought like terriers throughout.
Styles supposedly make fights but Saturday’s contest between two teams who approach the game from opposite ends of the footballing spectrum failed to spark until Ched Evans cancelled out Mark Roberts’ opener for the hosts.
United, who insist they can pass their way through this most combative of divisions, were industrious rather than inventive and produced only brief glimpses of the creative play to which they aspire.
Stevenage, dubbed ‘The New Wimbledon’ in some quarters, made little headway despite subjecting their opponents to an incessant aerial bombardment during the opening period.
Lowton, like Wilson, spoke of his “frustration” and “disappointment” afterwards.
Nevertheless, there were positives to soothe United’s bruised egos.
Goalkeeper Steve Simonsen, whose performances have come under severe scrutiny of late, marked his return to the starting line-up with a commanding display which included a superb double save from Stacy Long and Craig Reid moments before Evans converted from the edge of the area, while Wilson also paid tribute to Neill Collins’ contribution at the heart of United’s back four.
“He’s cleared so many balls his head is covered in lumps,” he said.
Neither deserved to finish on the losing side.
Lowton added: “Our football came out in bits but we’d weathered what they’d thrown at us and should have come through.”
Chances had been at a premium until Roberts opened the scoring in emphatic fashion just before the interval from Reid’s corner. Although Long hit the crossbar soon after the re-start, United’s persistence paid dividends when Evans restored parity.
Lowton was sent tumbling by John Mousinho and if there question marks about the legitimacy of referee Neil Swarbrick’s decision there was no doubt about the quality of the substitute’s free-kick.
Richard Cresswell lent weight to Wilson’s theory that “only one team looked like winning” during the closing stages when he fizzed a first-time effort just past the post only for Quinn to cheaply surrender possession by over-elaborating deep inside United territory.
Jean-Francois compounded the Irishman’s mistake with a clumsy tackle on Lawrie Wilson which left the replacement official with little option.
“What we have to do, rather than get down about everything, is make sure we put things right,” Lowton added.