League One, as Sheffield United have discovered to their cost on numerous occasions, pays little respect to stature or reputation.
Last night, at the Pirelli Stadium, Nigel Adkins’ side failed to strike a decisive blow for the established order by putting Burton Albion firmly in their place.
Although, as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s demeanour on the final whistle proved, the Dutchman was slightly happier with the outcome than his counterpart from South Yorkshire. And, on the balance of play, probably quite right too.
The match might have finished in stalemate but, with Conor Sammon, Billy Sharp and Nasser El Khayati, it deserved a goal or four.
“It was a very good point, a vital point, against a very, very good side,” said Hasselbaink.
Albion were celebrating the end of their debut season in the Football League while United were preparing to begin their slide out the Championship. Adkins, who took charge of the club earlier this summer, believes expansive football represents its best bet of returning at the fifth time of asking.
On this evidence, his hunch is probably correct although recording a fifth clean sheet of the campaign will have been pleasing given the opposition’s recent results.
Having identified Albion’s preference for sitting deep and drawing opponents forward, United’s gameplan emphasised the importance of enticing them further upfield instead.
It was a ploy which, given a little more care, attention and quality in the final third, would have paid dividends but did, coupled with Albion’s commitment to playing an attractive brand of football, combine to produce an absorbing game.
Adkins and Hasselbaink come from different footballing backgrounds. When it comes to sacrifing principles, though, they are cut from exactly the same cloth. The United manager, who has forged an enviable reputation for constructing expansive, attack minded teams, promised beforehand his players would take the game to the league leaders while Hasselbaink had vowed it would be “business as usual” despite facing arguably the division’s most glamorous name.
Like Adkins, he will have been heartened by most aspects of Albion’s play. And, like Adkins, he will have felt they deserved more from a contest which enthralled the hosts’ biggest crowd of the campaign throughout.
Adkins, who earned a living stopping rather than scoring goals, was attempting to guide Bangor City through the UEFA Cup qualifiers while his opposite number was honing the skills which captured the imagination at Leeds, Chelsea and Athletic Madrid. But Adkins, as the four promotions on his coaching CV demonstrates, still has the edge on Hasselbaink when it comes to the art of management.
With Sammon clearly instructed to test Albion’s physical prowess - their footballing talents, as a glance at the table demonstrates, are beyond reproach - United enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges although clear-cut opportunities remained in short supply until after the break.
Then, as a contest which had previously been keen rather than cagey became increasingly urgent and stretched, Sharp saw a goalbound effort deflected behind with Jon McLaughlin seemingly beaten and El Khayati, plucked from Dutch amateurs Kozakken Boys during the close season, float inches over the crossbar after collecting Mark Duffy’s pass.
Sharp’s influence continued to grow - another effort, following yet another goalmouth skirmish, was somehow hacked clear - before Albion wrestled back the advantage with El Khayati again the catalyst for some well-constructed, incisive, moves.
United, missing Jose Baxter and Craig Alcock due to injury, started slowly before seizing control of a first-half which ended with John Mousinho being forced to hack clear from the waiting Sammon following a flowing move embellished by Paul Coutts and instigated by Sharp.
Predictably Albion, making only one with Jerome Binnion-Williams replacing Lucas Akins, had no such problems finding their rhythm although, until El Khayati tried his luck from long range in the 25th minite, they found it impossible to penetrate a United defence well marshalled by David Edgar and Neill Collins.
Adkins players, sweeping searching balls forward towards Conor Sammon at every available opportunity, nearly gained their reward midway through the opening period when the Irishman rolled his marker only to scuff his shot. Moments later, Sammon made progress again but this time chose to cross rather than shoot and the ball flew wide before seeing a penalty appeal waved away by referee Christopher Kavanagh following a tangle with Mousinho.
Chris Basham, again captaining United in Jay McEveley’s absence, glanced a header wide as their momentum began to build and Sammon, agonisingly, saw the ball bounce just out of reach following some sterling work by Kieron Freeman.
Sharp and El Khayati exchanged chances before the United marksman saw a first-time shot scrambled clear following a poor back pass. Albion’s forays forward were growing increasingly sporadic although, when they did make progress, they always carried a threat.
Edgar prevented Stuart Beavon from flashing a low drive across Mark Howard’s six yard box before seeing a back heel cause panic among Albion’s rearguard but both defences ultimately held firm.
Burton Albion: McLaughlin, Edwards, Mousinho, Weir, Beavon, El Khayti, Butcher (Naylor 85), McCrory, O’Connor, Duffy (Thiele 90), Binnom-Williams (Akins 46). Not used: Matthews, Cansdell-Sherriff, Joachim, Palmer.Sheffield United: Howard, Freeman, Basham, Flynn (Woolford 61), Collins, Coutts (Scougall 61), Sharp (McNulty 89), Sammon, Reed, K Wallace, Edgar. Not used: Done, Long, Kennedy, Dimaio.
Referee: Christopher Kavanagh (Lancashire),