For a second, they dared to dream it could happen again.
Just four days after Sheffield United overturned a two-goal deficit to beat Colchester United, Nigel Clough’s side had once again dragged themselves back into a game they had started long after their opponents.
This time, it was at the County Ground against Swindon Town, and a 3-0 hammering had turned into a 3-2 humdinger. Game on.
Until, that is, substitute Andy Williams added a fourth to put a slick Swindon side out of lack-lustre United’s reach. Pardon the pun, but maybe it was too good to be true.
United, after all, were second best from almost the first whistle and were, deservedly, a goal down at half time. A promising spell just before the half-time whistle failed to continue when the sides reappeared, and United’s afternoon went from bad to worse when Michael Smith added to his early opener from the penalty spot, before Jonathan Obika made up his earlier profligacy in front of goal with a third.
The third goal proved something of a catalyst for United to up their performance once again, and strikes from Marc McNulty and Ben Davies - his third in two games, after his brace at Colchester - gave United’s hardy supporters a sense of déjà vu.
But Williams ensured any comeback was but an impossible dream, before Louis Thompson capped a stellar performance for five-star Town by emphatically smashing home via the underside of Mark Howard’s crossbar.
“Swindon are a confident side,” Clough admitted afterwards, “We went out there to stop them playing the ball out from the back. If you can do that well, you will stifle their threat, but we didn’t, and if you can’t defend, you’ll be exposed.
“Maybe we got it wrong with our approach. They had a lot of young lads who wanted the ball but then when we got on top and got hold of the ball ourselves, we looked dangerous too.
“There was a lack of physicality on Tuesday at Colchester, and it’s something we spoke about in the build-up to this game so it’s disappointing that it was lacking again here. It’s something that needs to come from the senior players first and foremost, and then it spreads to the rest of the team.”
Clough will again step up his search for defensive reinforcements before his side return to League One action, against Gillingham at Bramall Lane on Saturday.
“We signed an 18-year-old centre-half, Harrison McGahey, who was going to be our fourth choice,” Clough added. “We had Harry Maguire, Neill Collins and Andy Butler ahead of him, but he’s played every game so far. He’s a good, honest, genuine lad and he’ll be a really good player in the future, but maybe it’s just catching up with him a little now. He looks like he needs a rest.
“It was good to see us respond once again to going a few goals behind, but we need to address the reason we’re finding ourselves in these positions in the first place.”
United, whose last win at the County Ground came in 1994, took to the field in a new yellow-and-black change kit, but that was about as bright as it got during the early exchanges. Swindon, in comparison, started full of purpose and Iraqi star Yaser Kasim, who almost moved to Bramall Lane back in 2010, showed an early glimpse of his potential with a wicked free-kick that hit the top of Howard’s crossbar.
The United goalkeeper was then rooted to the spot as Obika’s curling effort flashed wide of his right-hand post. The early warning shots were plenty, but the visitors failed to pay heed and the inevitable opener duly followed. Thompson’s lung-busting run down the middle caught United off guard and, as Jay McEveley moved across to cover, Thompson slipped Michael Smith through on goal to finish with aplomb.
Going behind failed to galvanise United and Massimo Luongo was the next to enjoy a one-to-one invitation with Howard, although the Australian couldn’t accept and hit the stanchion behind the goal with his shot.
Clough, who restored Stefan Scougall, Chris Basham and Jamie Murphy to his starting 11, finally saw home goalkeeper Wes Foderingham tested eight minutes before the break. After Basham had helped on McEveley’s cross, McNulty attempted to prod the ball home, but was denied well by the onrushing goalkeeper from point blank range.
Even then, United could - and probably should - have gone into the dressing room at least three behind, as Obika - a striker in form, after all, with three goals in two games prior to this encounter - inexplicably managed to miscalculate a free header when it looked easier to score.
But Swindon continued to probe and their second duly came ten minutes into the second half, when Michael Smith converted from the spot. Luongo evaded the challenges of Scougall and McEveley before drawing the foul from Collins, and Smith made the most of the gift by placing the ball firmly past Howard’s despairing dive.
Basham, who endured a disappointing afternoon in Wiltshire, was then replaced by 17-year-old Louis Reed, who proved to be one of United’s few positives from an afternoon to forget. The diminutive youngster cemented his growing reputation with a commanding display which belied his slight figure. Clough later admitted that Reed had “put his more experienced colleagues to shame”.
“Louis now has every chance of starting at Leyton Orient [in the Capital One Cup, tomorrow], because we were delighted with how he did,” the United manager added.
“He did ever so well in pre-season, and he’s done well every time he’s come on for us. He also had a good game for the under-21s in midweek against Sheffield Wednesday, and it’s easy to forget he’s still only 17 years old.
“He stood out as a major plus point for us today, but maybe he shouldn’t stand out as much as he should. He put some of his senior, more experienced colleagues to shame out there.”
Lou Reed aside, this was far from a Perfect Day for United but they did, albeit briefly, threaten to dramatically change the outcome of a game for the second time in four days. Obika finally found his radar to put the home side three up, following a scything pass from Bradley Smith, but two goals in six minutes finally gave United’s travelling support something to cheer about.
Just as Scougall’s introduction was the catalyst for change at Colchester, it was his substitution which almost sparked a similar revival at Swindon. He was replaced by fellow Scot Ryan Flynn, who galvanised the visitors, and McNulty’s calm finish, lifted over Foderingham, gave them some hope after another wicked cross from Davies.
McNulty had previously found Town centre-halves Nathan Thompson and Jordan Turnbull harder to negotiate than the infamous ‘Magic Roundabout’, on the County Ground’s doorstep. But minutes later the mood among the home fans quickly changed when United scored a second, Davies looping home superbly after Flynn’s cross was helped away by Foderingham.
Just as United were looking to nick a point, their defensive frailties resurfaced and the home support breathed a collective sigh of relief when Williams restored their two-goal cushion after 76 minutes. And Town saved their best until last, wrapping up the points with a fine fifth four minutes before the end. Kasim skilfully beat Reed and Davies with one trick on the left wing, before finding Thompson with an inch-perfect cut-back.
The on-loan Norwich City star crashed home a stunning effort to leave the vociferous Robins support singing like canaries - but Clough, digesting the afternoon’s events, was as sick as a parrot.
“We need to get a bit more quality in, people who can defend better than we have, because seven goals in two away games is very poor,” he admitted.
“But on the plus side, we scored five ourselves and that was our first loss in seven. If we can get through Tuesday against Leyton Orient and beat Gillingham on Saturday, then that’s nine points from 12 which puts things a little more into perspective.
“Maybe it’s better to get all the rubbish out of the way in one game, so we can back to it tomorrow and on Saturday.”
Hero: Louis Reed, still only 17 years of age, replaced Chris Basham minutes after Michael Smith had put Swindon 2-0 up and, in manager Nigel Clough’s own words, “put his experienced colleagues to shame”.