Nigel Clough, the Sheffield United manager, had labelled this week as one of the most important in his team’s season.
Seven days and two home victories later, they entered the contest with Crewe Alexandra hoping to complete a hat-trick of triumphs at Bramall Lane.
Despite their perilous predicament towards the foot of the table, the visitors possess the ability, as Clough had reminded before kick-off, to “play any team in the division off the pitch.”
Crewe demonstrated their ‘keep-ball’ skills during the opening exchanges before, around the 10 minute mark, United found holes to exploit.
Tempo, Clough had also predicted, could hold the key to the game.
Unfortunately, from United’s perspective at least, it was painfully slow until Jason Holt punched a hole in the left hand side of Crewe’s rearguard with a driving run. The industrious Ryan Flynn ploughed forward in support but the midfielder’s cross flew agonisingly behind Steve Davies.
Flynn attempted to follow his compatriot’s lead soon after but was crowded-out on the edge of the penalty box.
In the eighth minute, it was Kieron Freeman’s turn to pick-up the gauntlet. Charging beyond two opponents, he appeared to have lost control before wrestling back possession and dsweeping a low centre across the six yard box which, again, only just evaded Davies.
Paul Coutts recycled possession, ignoring the pleas of the crowd to shoot when his shot would surely have been smothered, before Jose Baxter saw two efforts blocked in quick succession.
United, who dispatched Scunthorpe in midweek following a hard-fought success over Port Vale, appeared to be finding their rhythm when LAURI DALLA VALLE stopped the process dead in its tracked.
Uche Ikpeazu pierced Chris Basham and John Brayford with a pass and the former Finland under-21 international converted past Howard.
The atmosphere inside Bramall Lane, which had already been strangely quiet, dropped another decibel or ten.
United were similarly sluggish.
Brayford was robbed by Anthony Grant midway through the opening period before the midfielder found Nicky Ajose on the overlap. Fortunately for the hosts, he shot straight at Howard when it seemed easier to score.
Davies did his best to inject a much-needed sense of purpose into proceedings when, in the 24th minute, he challenged Paul Rachubka to an aerial ball. It bounced to Flynn who slotted home into an empty net by referee James Adcock had already blown for a foul on the Crewe goalkeeper.
Davies was involved again nine minutes before the interval. Freeman powered forward and the on-loan striker did well to hold off his marker before shooting across the face of goal. Had Murphy been a foot or two further forward, he would have tapped home.
The experienced Alan Tate was cautioned moments before the interval for deliberately tripping Holt as he looked to mount a counter-attack.
United made a change for the beginning of the second-half when Ben Davies replaced Flynn.
Territorially, the hosts were in the ascendancy. But Crewe, going about their business in composed, organised fashion, were still in control.
Steve Davies was cautioned in the 54th minute for a late challenge on Davis but, two minutes later, United were level.
Bob Harris pumped the ball forwards towards Murphy who wriggled into position on the by-line before finding HOLT. A lovely touch saw him control the ball with one foot before converting with the other. It was the midfielder’s second goal in as many games.
In the 67th minute, Chris Atkinson was cautioned for Murphy who had earlier seen his appeal for a penalty waved away after being challenged by a Crewe defender in the box.
Holt’s equaliser should have infused United with the rhythm they had previously lacked. But the sight of the contest becoming even more fractious confirmed it hadn’t. Crewe, though, could take plenty of credit for that.
Ryan Colclough returned from a near 16 month absence when Crewe, in the 71st minute, withdrew Ikpeazu. Three minutes later, Michael Doyle replaced Baxter while Steven Davies also made way for Matt Done. The flurry of changes continued when Atkinson and Anthony Stewart exchanged places.
Brayford hit the post from a 78th minute corner, taken by Davies, as United tried to force the breakthrough.
Murphy, who despite not enjoying his best afternoon had demonstrated good persistence, swept a shot just past the far post.
But Crewe served notice they were still a threat when Della Valle forced Howard to make a diving save with a dangerous shot on the turn.
Ajose made way for Brad Inman with five minutes of normal time remaining and, in the 89th, Davies became the
fourth player to be booked for a deliberate foul on Grant. Colclough saw a shot deflected behind for a corner when the resulting free-kick was taken. And, from that corner, COLCLOUGH powered Crewe back in front with a swirling shot which deceived Howard as it rose into the roof of the net.