Blades hit by late War' hammer: Sheffield United 1 Cardiff City 1
A throwaway comment, uttered by a member of Neil Warnock's backroom staff, set the tone for this thoroughly absorbing game.
The phrase ‘Well I don’t think you’ll go down’, delivered in response to a question about Sheffield United’s promotion chances, has been splashed across a poster at their training complex ever since August’s fixture in Wales.
Its motivational properties have helped propel Chris Wilder’s team into promotion contention and, interpreted as a slight on their top six credentials, explained why his players oozed such menance against opponents already with one foot in the Premier League next term.
On the evidence of their latest performance, and despite Anthony Pilkington’s 92nd minute equaliser for Cardiff City, United have a genuine chance of reaching the top flight themselves.
“I believe we should have got more,” Wilder, whose side remain a point behind the play-off positions, said.
“Yet again, we have missed opportunities and we should have accumulated more (points) than we have over the past few weeks.
“We’ve played well but we haven’t won. That decides who is successful and who just falls out. But there’s so many positives going on here.”
An already big Championship match became even bigger thanks to results earlier in the day.
United began the evening knowing victory would propel them back into the play-off positions while the visitors, the only credible threat to leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers, were looking to tighten their grip on second and equal a club record for successive wins.
That knowledge, combined with Warnock’s presence in the opposition dug-out, meant no quarter was either asked or given during a fast and frantic start.
Leon Clarke ensured it was United who struck first by claiming his 16th of the season.
Only a combination of poor fortune, profligate finishing and referee Michael Oliver’s utterly baffling refusal to award Lee Evans a penalty after being upended by Sol Bamba prevented United from scoring again and securing the outcome their efforts warranted.
“It’s about hanging in there,” Warnock, the former United manager, said.
“We knew they had to go for it and it’s great to see that but we know we had to work hard for a point.
“I couldn’t have asked any more if we’d have got beat but we showed good determination out there.”
“I didn’t see an equaliser coming,” Wilder countered. “But it should have just been a consolation.”
United, despite City’s impressive recent form, showed them precious little respect during the early exchanges with John Lundstram testing Neil Etheridge’s handling with a close-range header and Evans caressing a long distance shot just the wrong side of the goalkeeper’s far post.
But Warnock’s men are a resilient bunch and responded with a move which ended with Kenneth Zohore drawing a fine reaction save from Simon Moore.
But the momentum was with United and so, although his shot took a deflection before sneaking past a despairing Etheridge, it was no surprise when Clarke edged them into a deserved lead.
Although Brooks’ return to the starting eleven brought some much-neded zip to their attack, the centre-forward’s goal was all about precision and patience.
Indeed, before threading his angled drive inside the far post, Clarke was involved in the exchange of passes which shifted City’s rearguard out of position and allowed Lundstram to produce the killer assist.
Wilder, from his vantage point on the touchline, will have been delighted both by United’s attitude and the quality of their play.
Indeed, when Oliver signalled an end to the first-half, his only regret must have been that they did not lead by more.
John Fleck appeared destined to double United’s advantage after barging through City’s backline only to lose his footing at the vital moment.
Richard Stearman was also a whisker away from tightening their grip on the contest but Joe Bennett, hugging Etheridge’s right hand upright, prevented the defender’s header from crossing the line.
The introduction of Gary Madine equipped City’s front line with a physical edge it had lacked during the opening period.
But, until Aron Gunnarsson saw a low drive fly inches wide, United remained in the ascendancy.
Fleck’s perfectly weighted pass sent Evans bearing down on goal but Etheridge saved bravely at the midfielder’s feet while the excellent George Baldock also went close.
Zohore, who had spent much of the evening on the periphery of the action, served notice that City were still a threat by drawing another excellent block from Moore, their former goalkeeper, after shrugging-off two markers.
Clayton Donaldson struck the woodwork as United came roaring back but Pilkington converted deep into added time.
“You saw their reaction at the end,” Wilder said.
“Fair play to them but, I’m not going to deny, it was deflating not to get what we should have done.”
Sheffield United: Moore, Baldock, Stevens, O’Connell, Stearman (Wright 69), Basham L Evans (Leonard 88), Fleck, Lundstram, Clarke, Brooks (Donaldson 72). Not used: Eastwood, Sharp, Lafferty, Holmes.Cardiff City: Etheridge, Bennett, Morrison, Ecuele Manga, Bamba, Gunnarsson, Paterson, Holiett (Wildschut 78), Grujic, Mendez-Laing (Madine 46), Zohore (Pilkington 78). Not used: Peltier, Bryson, Murphy, Ward.
Referee: Michael Oliver (Northumberland).