There were times when this fixture threatened to become a personal duel between goalkeepers Chris Neal and Simon Moore.
Unfortunately for Sheffield United, who are still without a win at Highbury Stadium, Fleetwood Town’s David Bell also had a say in the final outcome too.
The striker scored early in the first-half and had seemingly condemned Chris Wilder’s team to their first defeat since August. Until, that was, Ethan Ebanks-Landell grabbed an equaliser deep into added time when Chris Hussey deposited a cross right into the middle of the opposition box.
It was late and, given his role in Fleetwood’s opener, redemption too.
But not even Uwe Rosler, whose touchline theatrics annoyed both the fourth official and members of Wilder’s coaching staff, could deny it was also deserved.
Ebanks-Landell has been immaculate since joining United from Wolverhampton Wanderers. But it was a rare slip from the defender which presented Ball with the opportunity to score. A poorly weighted back pass set in motion the chain of events which eventually saw the former Peterborough centre-forward slide home.
United could, indeed should, have restored parity almost immediately but Neal kept them at bay.
Fleetwood, looking anything but a team which entered this match on the back of a three game losing streak, also contributed to a lively first-half and ensured Moore was also able to showcase his goalkeeping talents.
But Neal was powerless to prevent Ebanks-Landell from pouncing in the fourth minute of added time to spark wild scenes among the travelling supporters.
Rosler had insisted Fleetwood had “no fear” about facing Wilder’s team when he spoke to the media earlier in the week. But the German was clearly concerned about one member of United’s midfield with Conor McLaughlin drafted-in, at Martyn Woolford’s expense, to perform a man-to-man marking job on Mark Duffy.
It failed to stem United’s attacking threat during the opening period with Matt Done and Billy Sharp among those to go close. But a lack of ruthlessness in the final third meant it was the hosts, not United, who entered the half-time interval ahead following Ball’s simple finish.
Wilder also made a change to his starting eleven with Jake Wright, fit again following injury, restored to the heart of United’s rearguard. Stefan Scougall, who was withdrawn due to illness against Bristol Rovers four days earlier, featured on the bench. The Scot did appear early in the second-half as United changed their shape to combat
Kieron Freeman, one of several players who have rediscovered their form since Wilder’s appointment in May, carved the game’s first real chance in the third minute. A neat interchange with Paul Coutts sent the wing-back darting down the flank before whipping a dangerous low centre across Fleetwood’s penalty area. Done tried but failed to get a decisive touch before seeing a shot smothered by Neal moments later. John Fleck’s pass had created that sixth minute opening.
Fleetwood’s Bobby Grant tested Moore’s handling with a long-range effort soon after but not before Coutts had seen a shot deflected behind for the first of a series of United corners. Grant’s attempt, though, did mark the start of a decent period of pressure which ended with the hosts taking a 12th minute lead.
Ball swept home into an almost empty net after Ebanks-Landell’s back pass sold Moore short. It was probably the first error of the centre-half’s loan with the club.
United’s response was immediate. But it failed to deliver a goal.
Sharp forced Neal to tip over the crossbar before seeing a close-range shot smothered following good work by Done. In between, Jack O’Connell saw a header hacked-off the line at the far post. Freeman excelled himself by producing an excellent tackle to deny Kyle Dempsey but, as the opening period unfolded, United had once again taken charge of open play. Curiously, though, it was Fleetwood who benefited from the better chances with Moore parrying away a 30th minute piledriver from Ball. The former Cardiff City goalkeeper did well to tip Dempsey’s deflected effort around the foot of his left hand post soon after when the ball threatened to sneak into the net.
He deserved a pat on the back from his team mates again when, early in the second-half, Chris Long unleashed from distance. Then, Neal performed heroics to deny Fleck from close range following Sharp’s cut-back.
Substitute Harry Chapman twice swept wide of the far post as United tightened their grip on proceedings while Done went close with a header.
Finally, though, their persistence got its reward when Ebanks-Landell muscled his way into position and met Hussey’s cross.
Fleetwood Town: Neal, McLaughlin, Bell, Eastham, Pond, Ryan (Woolford 57), Ball (Hunter 66), Grant, Duckworth, Long (Jonsson 77), Dempsey. Not used: Cairns, Bolger, Cole, Jakubiak.
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, O’Connell, Sharp, Done, Wright (Scougall 56), Coutts, Freeman, Ebanks-Landell, Duffy (Chapman 67), Lafferty (Hussey 51). Not used: Ramsdale, Brown, Wilson, Whiteman.
Referee: Andy Haines (Tyne and Wear).