Sheffield United: Yes, their collapse was painful to watch but Chris Wilder’s team will also have cause for encouragement when they reflect on an extraordinary night at Aston Villa
After a brief conversation with Dean Smith in the corridor outside, Chris Wilder navigated his way though Aston Villa's cavernous post-match media suite, sat down and simply sighed.
Less than an hour earlier, in the 82nd minute of what would prove an extraordinary game, Sheffield United had been destined for the top of the Championship after establishing a 3-0 lead over their rivals from the Midlands.
But a remarkable finale, one part comeback two parts collapse, saw them surrender that advantage and finish the night still third in the table and with only a draw to show for their efforts.
"I'll always love it," Wilder admitted, as a resigned smile spread across his face. "But sometimes, it would be easy to fall out with football. I didn't see that coming. I don't think anyone did. We'll look at what happened, dust ourselves down and move on. That's the only thing you can do. That's what you've got to do in fact."
It was the perfect response to what, until the closing stages of the fixture, had been a near faultless performance. Billy Sharp's hat-trick, his 99th, 100th and 101st goals for United, saw United deservedly wrestle control of the contest having nullified the threat posed by a Villa side laden with attacking talent.
But after Tyrone Mings had reduced the deficit with a fortuitous header, mistakes spread like a contagion through the visitors' ranks with Jack O'Connell and Dean Henderson among those culpable during the close stages. Tammy Abraham and substitute Aaron Green took full advantage and Villa could scarcely believe their luck.
"If we were going to win it, based on what happened, it was going to be us that won it," Wilder said, his thoughts racing and mind, like most of the journalists in attendance, totally scrambled. "If we weren't going to win it, again based on what happened, it was going to be down to us.
"I thought the boys were exceptional, absolutely exceptional, for all but five minutes at the end. To come to Aston Villa, to do what we did for 80 or so against the players they've got, and you have to be a good player to be at Villa by the way, I think they can take something away with them. This is an iconic stadium, a good club with a good manager and assistant (John Terry) and to do what we did, well, seriously, the boys can be pleased with themselves other than the end."
Although Wilder's comments will be dismissed as spin by some, they were an accurate reflection of the game. Villa were dangerous during the opening skirmishes, with Jonathan Kodija and Abraham causing problems. But once United began to second-guess their runs and interpreted the duo's movement, they became the dominant force. When United's composure unravelled, following Abraham's effort, it was totally at odds with an otherwise mature performance.
The way the action unfolded confirmed, despite Wilder's pre-match claim to the contrary, that his squad is not entirely immune to pressure.
Nevertheless, when heads clear and proper assessment and analysis is possible, United's manager and his staff will be able to take some encouragement from the game. The performances of Gary Madine and Kieran Dowell have provided plenty of food for thought ahead of Wednesday's meeting with Middlesbrough; after being recalled to the starting eleven, they had parts to play in all of Sharp's goals.
United's captain, now the division's leading marksman, remains unerringly consistent while Scott Hogan, signed on loan from Villa, will be available again for selection. However, with the race for the top two delicately poised, carelessness has the potential to carry a very heavy price.
It was also spoke volumes about Henderson's character that, despite making two costly errors, he accepted a share of the responsibility for United's slip-up afterwards.
When the final whistle blew, the goalkeeper walked over to United's shell-shocked supporters in the right hand corner of the stadium and pointed to his chest. "That was down to me," he appeared to be saying. If it was in part, as Wilder later conceded, Henderson remains in credit; helping United gain far more points than those he has lost. O'Connell, again effective for the most part, also contributed with a fresh air clearance as Villa sensed blood.
"One mistake became two mistakes and then three," Wilder said. "That can't be allowed to happen but, all that told, we're still in a good position and more than in the mix."