Nigel Clough admitted beforehand that his Sheffield United side should “relish” tonight’s League One play-off semi-final, first leg at home to Swindon Town.
But they have it all to do now to reach the final at Wembley, after Swindon returned south with a 2-1 lead from Bramall Lane.
Clough’s Blades outfit almost enjoyed a dream start to the tie within the opening five minutes, when Jamie Murphy prodded wide after smart work from right-back Kieron Freeman.
Clough made six changes to his Blades side from the draw against fellow play-off hopefuls Chesterfield last weekend. In came Chris Basham, Ryan Flynn, Jamie Murphy, Paul Coutts, Steve Davies and Jason Holt, with Michael Doyle, Stefan Scougall, Louis Reed, Jose Baxter, Marc McNulty and Che Adams making way.
United then had a strong appeal for a penalty turned down, when Ben Gladwin blocked Murphy’s cross with his arm before Bob Harris blazed over the Swindon bar.
Steve Davies then squandered United’s best chance when he somehow failed to get any meaningful contact on Harris’s scuffed shot, but it was the unlikely figure of Freeman who put United ahead in the 19th minute. The full-back fed Ryan Flynn and continued his run into the box to meet the Scot’s low cross, and fire first-time past the wrong-footed Swindon goalkeeper Wes Foderingham.
But Town were handed the chance to get back on level terms from the penalty spot after Harris had clumsily upended the tricky Nathan Byrne - but Gladwin’s penalty - Town’s 13th of the season - was saved well by Mark Howard.
Another Harris challenge on Byrne earned the full-back a yellow card, and United had another appeal for a penalty waved away when Jack Stephens eased Murphy off the ball in the Town penalty area.
Davies was then cheaply booked for kicking the ball away, much to the derision of a vociferous home support, and Howard was called into action for the second time in the match to keep out Byrne’s stinging shot. John Brayford was forced to undergo intensive treatment after a clash of knees with Jermaine Hylton, and was replaced at half time by Stefan Scougall as Basham moved back to centre-half.
Town dragged themselves back on level terms when Sam Ricketts powered home a header, beating Freeman to meet an outswinging corner and give Howard no chance.
The goal put Town firmly in the ascendancy and Byrne and Ricketts both tested United’s under-pressure backline.
But United, and Flynn in particular, issued a reminder of the threat they pose, too, as the Scot delivered two willing runs from the right wing.
Ricketts became the latest player to enter Darren Bond’s notebook after a tussle with Flynn, and from the resulting free-kick Foderingham had to be alert to collect Basham’s flicked header.
The Town ‘keeper was in action again soon after to save Flynn’s left footed effort after a good run from the winger, who was left in some discomfort after a late tackle just as he shaped to shoot.
Matt Done, back fit following a groin complaint, came on in the 74th minute to replace Jason Holt and he almost made an instant impact, fouling Nathan Thompson before rolling the ball into net after the referee’s whistle.
Hylton was replaced by the experienced Andy Williams for Town, and referee Bond further incensed the Bramall Lane crowd by pulling play back for a foul by Yaser Kasim on Davies; with Done in an advantageous position.
Done then set up Davies to test Foderingham with a stinging shot, and the on-loan Blackpool man then missed a gilt-edged chance to put his side ahead again when his close-range header went the wrong side of the far post.
A marauding run from centre-half Stephens saw him beat five United players before hitting the side-netting, and Scougall was forced to undertake lengthy treatment on his hamstring after pulling up chasing Stephens. The young Scot was visibly distressed as he left the field to be replaced by Michael Doyle, and his availability for Monday’s second leg - and a possible Wembley final - must now be called into question.
Massimo Luongo and Jordan Turnbull were both required to produce stunning last-gasp blocks to deny United as the hosts looked to finish strongly.
But they suffered a huge blow in time added on when Byrne let fly from 20 yards and beat Howard, to put Town 2-1 ahead and firmly in the box seat ahead of the second leg at the County Ground.
Blades: Howard, Harris, Brayford, Basham, Flynn, Murphy, Coutts, McEveley, Freeman, S Davies, Holt.
Subs: Turner, Alcock, Doyle, Scougall, McNulty, Done, Adams.
Swindon: Foderingham, Thompson, Byrne, Luongo, Stephens, Turnbull, Gladwin, Kasim, Smith, Hylton, Ricketts.
Subs: Williams, Swift, Obika, Barthram, Rodgers, Marshall, Belford.
Referee: Darren Bond.