They might be worlds apart in terms of size and stature but only a single point separated Sheffield United from Notts County entering last night’s contest at Bramall Lane.
The match saw the visitors preserve their unbeaten record away from home in the competition this term and proved equally as tight as the League One table itself, though this could be attributed to the failure of Nigel Clough’s side to translate territory and possession into clear cut chances.
Not for the first time this season, United lacked the cutting edge required to break down stubborn and streetwise opponents who used every trick in the book to prevent them from building a head of steam until Jamie Murphy cancelled-out Mike Edwards’ effort during the closing stages.
United deserved at least a share of the spoils, not least for a powerful second-half performance, but were once again left to rue a start which possessed endeavour but precious little punch.
Clough had labelled Mark Howard and Roy Carroll as the best goalkeeper’s in the division on the eve of a game.
However, while Carroll lived-up to his billing by dealing convincingly with most which came his way, the usually reliable Howard was responsible for the mistake which presented County with a first-half lead.
Gary Jones, their influential midfielder, deliberately dithered as he prepared to take a corner and the ploy worked a treat as the ball sailed over the 28-year-old’s head before being prodded home at the far post.
Jose Baxter, deployed in a deeper lying role, grew in influence as the contest unfolded but, try as he might, was unable to inspire an equaliser.
Instead, that honour fell to Bob Harris who picked-out Murphy just as United seemed destined to suffer what would have been an unjust but potentially costly defeat.
County’s transformation from relegation favourites to Championship contenders in the space of six short months has been one of the most beguiling stories of the season so far with Derry, their raw but talented young manager, emerging as the unlikely hero of this footballing fairytale.
The former Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers midfielder, returning to the club which, over a decade ago effectively kick-started his professional career, was described by some observers as being a purely cosmetic appointment after being handed the reins at Meadow Lane midway through last term.
However, after fashioning an effective squad of players on a shoestring budget, Derry has demonstrated substance as well as style.
His players showed the same qualities for long periods here, restricting United’s opportunties to test Carroll’s handling before seizing upon Howard’s slip to take control.
However, the hosts’ persistence paid-off when Murphy claimed his fourth goal of the campaign after an excellent intervention from Jay McEveley had kept United’s hopes alive.
After performing a dramatic overhaul of the options at his disposal during the close season, Clough’s selections have been consistent in recent weeks with the likes of Bob Harris, Baxter and Scougall all featuring in a starting eleven boasting only two changes to the side which had drawn with Oldham Athletic six days earlier.
However, although new signing Kieran Wallace was named among United’s substitutes, Chris O’Grady was left out as a precautionary measure after arriving on emergency loan from Brighton and Hove Albion.
Michael Higdon, tasked with spearheading the hosts’ attack after following a hamstring complaint, endured a frustrating evening which was summed-up perfectly when he cushioned a dangerous centre into Scougall’s path only for a County defender to react first.
United went about their business with energy and purpose during the early exchanges with former County winger Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Jamie Murphy both looking to make progress along the flanks and Scougall producing an industrious shift in midfield.
Indeed, had the weight of Chris Basham’s pass been better judged, Murphy could well have handed them a 12th minute lead but the defender’s centre proved impossible to control.
United breathed a sigh of relief themselves soon after when Howard’s poor clearance set in motion a chain of events which ended with Michael Petrasso, a Canadian teenager on loan from Queens Park Rangers, unleashing County’s first shot of note.
For the most part, though, it was United who carried the greater threat with McEveley glancing a header towards Roy Carroll and Baxter, whose corner had created the opportunity, seeing another attempt blocked.
That pattern continued until the closing stages of the first half when Jones, taking part after successfully appealing against the red card which would otherwise have prevented him from taking part, deceived Howard with the flight of a looping 32nd minute corner which allowed Edwards to tap home.
Clough’s anguished reaction - turning back towards the dug-out with his head in his hands - spoke volumes about the error which had gifted County the lead.
McEveley and Baxter both produced poor attempts after the latter had been tripped on the edge of Carroll’s penalty area as he attempted to inspire a fightback.
Campbell-Ryce forced Carroll to save at the foot of his near post soon after the interval while Murphy and Scougall both saw low drives blocked before they reached the Northern Ireland international.
When Basham’s header, from Campbell-Ryce’s cross, did, he excelled himself by scrambling clear. McEveley produced an even better block to stop Stephen McLaughlin from doubling County’s advantage moments before Murphy converted from Harris with 12 minutes remaining.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Harris 7, Basham 6, Doyle 6 (Flynn 69), Murphy 7, Scougall 7, Baxter 7 (Reed 86), McEveley 7, Campbell-Ryce 6, Higdon 6 (McNulty 69), McCarthy 6. Not used: McGahey, Turner, Adams, K Wallace.
NOTTS COUNTY: Carroll 7, Dumbuya 6, Hollis 6, G Thompson 6 (Hall 80), Cassidy 6, Jones 7, Noble 6, Edwards 7, McLaughlin 6, Cranston 6 (C Thompson 66), Petrasso 6 (Murray 62). Not used: Smith, Spiess, Traore, Laing.
GOALS: Edwards (32), Murphy (78)
CAUTIONS: Edwards (37)
RED CARDS: None