Jordan Slew celebrated his first start in senior football by scoring. The youngster’s effort appeared to have handed Micky Adams’ side a lifeline until Nathan Ellington pounced.
IF Sheffield United were as adept at collecting points as they are spurning chances then the Championship table would make pleasant reading for Micky Adams and his side.
Instead, having staked a late but compelling claim for miss of the season, they find themselves at the foot of the rankings, eight adrift of safety with only four games left to play and waiting for relegation to League One to be officially rubber-stamped.
They saw Darius Henderson fluff a hat-trick of gilt-edged opportunities during their last home game against Middlesbrough, and this time it was Bjorn Helge Riise’s turn to be the culprit.
With the score still deadlocked and Preston North End, by Phil Brown’s own admission, plunging Deepdale into a stupor, had the Norwegian converted Jordan Slew’s perfectly-weighted pass, the final outcome could have been altogether different.
Instead, from only a yard out and with goalkeeper Iain Turner stranded, he inexplicably hit the angle of the woodwork rather than the back of the net.
Keith Treacy duly punished the error with a breathtaking brace and although Slew celebrated his first senior start by reducing the deficit late on substitute Nathan Ellington restored Preston’s cushion with a gift-wrapped goal at the death.
“We’re gutted,” Nick Montgomery, the United captain, admitted. “The gaffer came in and said that just sums up our season.
“We’re missing from a yard out and gave another bad goal away. All afternoon we looked dangerous.
“I don’t know how we’ve lost and it’s devastating.
“It’s virtually impossible to stay-up now but as long as mathematically we’re still in with a shout then we’ve got to stay positive because the fans deserve it.”
With their hopes of survival now effectively over, the performances of full debutants Slew and Harry Maguire, coupled with fellow new boy Danny Philliskirk’s promising second-half cameo, provided some much-needed encouragement for the travelling support.
Maguire, a raw but uncompromising centre-half, coped well with the threat posed by Chris Brown and the irrepressible Iain Hume while Slew was bright and lively in attack as United wrestled control following Preston’s furious opening.
“The young lads who came in did well,” said Montgomery. “That’s the future for Sheffield United. Big Harry was outstanding at the back and Slewy deserved his goal.
“In that sense it looks bright. It’s a long time, about 10 or 12 years, since me, Phil (Jagielka) and Michael (Tonge) came through.
“That’s not enough but John Pemberton has taken over the youth team and got them to the FA Youth Cup Final which is a tremendous achievement.
“Two of those lads were involved out there and they didn’t look out of place, which is fantastic for the club as a whole and the fans.”
This might yet prove the greatest trip that Brown has ever been on. Preston appeared cut adrift at the bottom when he took charge early in the New Year. Now, having taken 14 points from a possible 21, they remain 23rd but only four shy of 21st-placed Crystal Palace.
Like his counterpart, Adams, the former Hull City chief identified Riise’s blooper as the contest’s defining moment.
“I’m not going to say I was bored before the break but I was disappointed,” Brown admitted. “But we addressed that, so to speak, at half-time.
“We did have a slice of luck, though, when their lad hit the post and it seemed easier to score than miss. That type of luck has perhaps been eluding us of late so hopefully things are going to change.”
With the strains of the Great Escape still echoing around the stadium, Preston leapt out of the blocks in frantic fashion before United grew in stature. Stephen Quinn, who later claimed he had been denied
a penalty, should have done better after being released by Henderson while Riise lost his balance at the crucial moment before Slew forced Turner to save.
Treacy, a former United loanee, pounced following Riise’s second mistake of the afternoon by driving a searing free-kick through the crowded box before producing an even sweeter finish after trading chances with Montgomery.
Slew rifled home at the second attempt after his initial shot was blocked and, although Henderson hit the post and Maguire headed over as United pressed for an equaliser, Ellington sealed Preston’s third straight win on home soil when Quinn’s pass was intercepted.
“We have to keep going,” said Montgomery. “The effort and commitment is there and on another occasion we would have won that three or four nil.
“Obviously, though, it’s just not meant to be.
“We have to learn that, whatever happens, to eradicate the silly mistakes that have cost us week in and week out.”
Adams confirmed that Nyron Nosworthy and Marcus Bent returned to their parent clubs before Saturday’s defeat at Preston.
The pair, on loan from Sunderland and Birmingham City respectively, had been scheduled to finish the season in South Yorkshire, but Adams said: “They’ve been sent back because we are trying to open up places for the young players.
“We’d like to thank them for their efforts and wish them all the best for the future.”
It’s been another tough day at the office. It’s always tough when you lose a game. Until there is an ‘R’ next to our name then we’ve got to keep going. We’ve got to try and win our last four.