Togetherness, focus and purpose are the three qualities Nigel Adkins believes can propel Sheffield United in to the Championship next term.
But, after succumbing to a Bury team supposedly fighting for survival at the opposite end of the table, they are in even greater need of some victories too.
United, who began the campaign as heavy favourites to achieve promotion, are now in danger of falling long before they approach the final fence. Certainly, trailing sixth-placed Millwall by five points with only 15 matches remaining, any margin for error has almost completely disappeared.
Craig Jones was responsible for condemning United, given Bury’s recent experiences in the competition, to arguably their most painful and potentially damaging defeat of the campaign.
But the manner in which David Flitcroft’s charges prevailed will cause Adkins even more concern than the result. United created little going forward and, other than a goalmouth skirmish during the closing stages, never really threatened after seeing Che Adams go close soon after the interval.
Little wonder that the United manager’s mood seemed even darker than the weather when he trudged down the tunnel following the final whistle. The chorus of disapproval emanating from the away end told its own miserable story.
For much of the season, United have struggled to convince many of their supporters that promotion is a realistic target this season. And, on the evidence of last night’s contest, it also appears they have yet to convince many of their League One rivals.
Bury, who took a 27th minute lead when Jones found the top corner from distance, certainly did not approach the challenge with even the merest hint of reticence. The Welsh defender’s finish, which left a helpless George Long grasping at thin air, might have been spectacular. But it was also deserved and, much to Adkins’ chagrin, ended Bury’s six hour wait for a goal at home.
They would have plundered more had Long not excelled himself to thwart Danny Mayor and Peter Clarke after United’s Adams saw a low drive cleared off the line.
The manner in which United allowed Bury, previously without a win at this stadium since December, to seize the initiative raises serious concerns about the mentality of Adkins’ squad. There is no shortage of talent at the 50-year-old’s disposal, despite question marks about whether much of it is suited to properly implementing his preferred expansive style. But a lacklustre start, against opponents who had conceded nine goals without reply in their previous two outings, sowed the seeds for their downfall here.
What little flashes of ingenuity they showed were fleeting and brief. This was an evening were momentum was always going to be everything. And, despite trying to muster a response to Jones’ intervention by introducing the likes of Matt Done and Billy Sharp, United fell disappointingly short.
They had been forewarned - Adkins acknowledging Bury would be smarting after suffering two heavy reverses en route to this rearranged fixture - but were definitely not armed.
While Adkins, an injury to Neill Collins apart, kept faith with the same starting eleven which had beaten Doncaster Rovers three days earlier, his counterpart Flitcroft took an altogethger different approach after labelling Bury’s 6-0 humbling by Coventry City as unacceptable and an affront to values of the club.
Strong words, Adkins warned before travelling to Lancashire, which would demand a response and so it proved with Chris Basham flinging himself at a Leon Clarke shot as the hosts came bursting out of the blocks.
Basham, deputising for Collins at centre-half, was forced to intervene again when Ryan Lowe, another former Sheffield Wednesday marksman, surged forward at the behest of Flitcroft and his colleagues on the bench. Across the technical area, United’s coaching staff became increasingly animated with every Bury attack. If they had entered this fixture with designs on gnawing away at the hosts’ brittle confidence, then the opening exchanges had exactly the opposite effect.
Mayor and Jones both blazed long-range efforts over the crossbar as Bury’s self-belief grew. Jones went close again, this time from an acute angle, but Long plucked the ball out of the air. He was unable to repeat the trick, however, when the right-back unleashed a vicious drive from the edge of a sodden penalty area.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who was later withdrawn for Sharp, bundled wide as United began to pose some questions of their own while Adams twice went close after the break. First, only seven minutes after the interval, he was preparing to wheel away in celebration only for Joe Riley to hack clear off the line before miscalculating his angles after ghosting past two markers.
United, now a much more formidable proposition than the one they had presented for the opening 45 minutes of this game, were nevertheless indebted to Long for denying Mayor with a simply splendid save as the action became increasingly stretched. He excelled himself again to parry away a Peter Clarke header which seemed destined to find its way into the back of the net.
Substitute Done and Basham both tried to force the ball home on the stroke of added time but to no avail.
Bury: Lawlor, Riley, Tutte, P Clarke, L Clarke, Mayor, Jones, Lowe (Pope 80), Soares, Pugh, Cameron. Not used: Ruddy, Hussey, Mellis, O’Sullivan, Miller, Brown.
Sheffield United: Long, Brayford, Basham, Baxter, McEveley, Campbell-Ryce (Done 70), Reed (Flynn 58), Calvert-Lewin (Sharp 46), Adams, Edgar, Hammond. Not used: Howard, Coutts, Done, Woolford, McGahey.
Referee: Stuart Attwell (Warwickshire).