The trouble was, against an Ipswich Town side modelled in their manager’s own dour image, this was one of those rare occasions when Sheffield United lacked the finesse required to engineer a more desirable outcome.
That, combined with some inadequate decision-making, meant a fixture which had been billed as pivotal to both club’s seasons descended into a battle of will rather than wit before producing the type of result which suggested it had been anything but.
“It was hard to bring any quality out there,” Billy Sharp, the visitors’ captain, said. “They, in all fairness to them, look to make it that way. But I thought we did enough to just edge it and take the three points. Because we didn’t, we’ve got to dust ourselves down and make sure we do next time out.”
Although the final outcome did little to further either team’s hopes of achieving play-off qualification, and in Ipswich’s case probably obliterated them altogether, United could take some heart from the way they approached the game.
Substitute James Wilson struck a post after making his return from injury while Sharp himself went close after Ched Evans had seen a strong appeal for a penalty turned down. But the moment which perhaps summed up the contest best, and highlighted why United failed to make their superiority count, came seconds before the centre-forward appeared to be impeded in the box. John Lundstram, having punched a hole in Ipswich’s rearguard, elected to take a pass when a shot would do and, with Luke Chambers swarming all over his teammate, the chance to break the stalemate was gone. The otherwise enterprising Lundstram was not solely culpable for United’s frustrations. But, as Sharp later acknowledged, his error of judgement did prove costly.
“It was just that final little bit,” he said. “Maybe John should have had a ‘go’ himself. But if Ched sticks it away, then nobody says a thing.
“That’s the fine margins involved, the small little things that can make a big difference. Obviously we wanted to win but we can still take something away with us which is good. There is definitely something positive we can take from that.”
A battle of wills not wits
Portman Road, a ground enveloped by apathy, was an unlikely venue for a match with the power to influence this season’s battle for promotion from the Championship. After an exciting start, which saw George Baldock and Lee Evans test Bartosz Bialkowski before Dominic Iorfa forced Jamal Blackman into action, the listlessness of the home crowd proved contagious as the contest descended into a soporific armwrestle. John Cobbold, Ipswich’s legendary former chairman, once insisted the club was only in crisis when “we run out of white wine in the boardroom”. It would be stretching the truth to suggest Mick McCarthy’s side are on the brink of catastrophe. But Cobbold’s successors, seemingly unaware about the true extent of opposition to the manager’s prosaic tactics, are taking his words a step too far. Ipswich, about as far removed from their dashing teams of the 60s, 70s and early 80s as you can get, are sleepwalking into mediocrity. United tried but, as the afternoon wore on, found themselves unable to escape the malaise.
“The gaffer was happy with us because we fought for every single ball and every single tackle,” Sharp continued. “If we do that, then he’ll always pat us on the back. It was just that last little bit, that final little bit of quality. There were some quality balls going across the box which, to be fair, deserved to get put away.”
Although the result does not signal the end of United’s push for the top six - they are five points behind Middlesbrough with 10 games left to play - it did little to further their ambitions of achieving back to back promotions. Wilder, who led them to the League One title last term has crafted an exciting, intelligent squad since replacing Nigel Adkins at the helm. But, with creator-in-chief Mark Duffy nursing a tight calf muscle, they lacked the imagination to make their momentum pay.
Time and time again, moves which had promised much delivered little after breaking down at the final moment. A pass designed to prise apart the massed ranks of Ipswich’s defence was instead swallowed up by the crowd.
“We’re still in with a great chance of getting in there,” Sharp insisted. “It’s a hell of a big week coming up.”
Forcing the issue
After four straight away fixtures, United play the first of two back to back fixtures at Bramall Lane when Burton Albion visit South Yorkshire tomorrow night.
With Nigel Clough’s squad also expected to try and suffocate their attack rather than indulge in a dangerous shoot-out, United know the small details could make a big difference. Had either Baldock or Lee Evans secured an early breakthrough, the flow of the game would have been markedly different.
Instead, the longer the deadlock remained unbroken, the more Ipswich were encouraged to continue with their industrious approach. It made for a pretty depressing spectacle but, to both teams’ credit, they kept plugging away.
Not least Wilson who, having been introduced during the closing stages, saw his low drive from the edge of the area rebound off the woodwork.
“We’re still in with a great chance,” Sharp said. “I think there’s two places up for grabs between six or seven teams.
“There will be twists and turns to come and we want to be breathing down other people’s necks.”