Sheffield United’s faint play-off hopes took a severe dent this afternoon, with a late 2-1 defeat at Swindon Town.
Sheffield United, publicly at least, have refused to talk-up their chances of sneaking into the top six.
Privately, however, they arrived at The County Ground confident of mounting a late bid for promotion having won 11 of the club’s previous 13 outings in all competitions.
Swindon Town, though, harbour Championship aspirations of their own and tested the visitors’ resolve almost straight from kick-off by forcing a corner which Howard, the United goalkeeper, was relieved to watch fly safely across his penalty box.
Clough’s team followed suit but the set-piece, earned by Murphy’s determination to hunt down a long clearance, was comfortably collected by Fotheringham.
A serious road traffic accident had delayed the start to this afternoon’s game.
But both sides went about their business with real intent and purpose during the opening stages.
Murphy, now patrolling the left rather than right flank, surged beyond Nathan Thompson but could not bring the ball under control while Brayford, operating at centre-half, was forced to clear under pressure from Smith when Town launched another quick counter.
A neat interchange between Coady, Scougall and Flynn delivered another United corner.
Again taken by Davies, it ended with Brayford slicing a 15th minute shot high and wide of the Town goal.
Three minutes later, Town took the lead. Smith, who had already produced some intelligent football in the space between United’s midfield and defence, released STOREY and the 20-year-old powered an unstoppable angled finish into the back of the net.
Howard, conceding for only the third time since February 1, had no chance.
Collins, with Brayford lurking in the background, was inches away from connecting with another dangerous Davies set-piece as United attempted to make an immediate response. Town’s high balls ‘over-the-top’ proved effective throughout the first-half with Freeman darting across the prevent Smith from pouncing on the loose ball soon after Collins’ near miss.
United were attempting to take a more intricate route to goal with Coady’s pass only just evading Flynn after he had danced into space across Fotheringham’s area.
The dynamic of their play changed in the 33rd minute when Baxter was forced off through injury.
Porter, a more physical presence in attack, took his place but it was Coady and Brayford who imemdiately went close to restoring parity. But for two superb saves from Fotheringham, they would have done so.
First the Town goalkeeper scrambled clear at the near post when Coady met Davies’ 36th minute free-kick with his head following a foul on Doyle. Then, from the resulting corner, Fotheringham excelled himself again when Brayford, in acres of space by the penalty spot, met another fine delivery from Davies.
United, those two opportunities apart, had failed to build upon what had promised to be a bright start.
Lacking their usual rhythm and incision, Davies’ prowess from set-pieces was their most potent weapon throughout the first-half.
United got back on level terms after piecing together a superb move which ended with DOYLE claiming the equaliser.
Murphy sent Freeman darting through and the on-loan defender pulled back a short centre to Scougall who, gliding past his marker, duly found the captain lurking at the far post.
Now, United were in the ascendancy with Coady nearly instigating a carbon copy move soon after.
Then, in the 79th minute, United should have been awarded a penalty when Archibald-Henville tripped the overlapping Freeman.
Doyle was close to scoring what would have been a spectacular second but his long-range shot flew wide.
More controversy followed when Porter put the ball in the back of the net but was adjudged off-side and so play was brought back for Archibald-Henville’s foul on Flynn. Then, Foderingham produced another stunning save from Coady’s volley.
Town duly raced-up the other end of the pitch and scored when substitute THOMPSON’S shot squirmed away from Howard and the spin saw it bounce across the line to deny United the point their second-half showing display deserved.