Preston North End vs Sheffield United: Potentially costly night as Blades throw away two-goal lead to draw at Deepdale

“The winner of this match, if there is a winner, will go into the top half of the Championship,” Deepdale’s master of ceremonies proclaimed moments before kick-off.

Wednesday, 19th January 2022, 7:13 am

As far as introductions go, it wasn’t quite up there with ‘It’s showtime’ or ‘Let’s get ready to rumble’.

But with the race for the play-offs rendered almost impossible to fathom by a spate of postponements, taking small steps in the right direction is what it’s all about for Sheffield United right now.

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This should have been one of those, with Jayden Bogle edging them in front before Billy Sharp converted from the penalty spot following Andrew Hughes’ sending-off just before the interval.

But thanks to a combination of complacency, poor concentration and profligate finishing, it wasn’t. It was a mis-step. And a potentially costly one at that.

Preston North End might have spent the majority of the contest at a numerical disadvantage. But when Emil Riis grabbed a late equaliser, following Alan Browne’s strike midway through the second period, they deserved to be on level terms.

Rhian Brewster of Sheffield United (R) is fouled by Andrew Hughes of Preston North End, resulting in a penalty during the Sky Bet Championship match at Deepdale, Preston: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

While Ryan Lowe celebrated his men’s fighting spirit on the final whistle, Heckingbottom looked utterly furious. United are 11th and with games in hand on those above them, still in with a shout of qualifying for the top six.

But any more slip ups - particularly preventable ones like this - and they can forget it. Huge improvements are required before Heckingbottom’s squad can be viewed as genuine Premier League contenders.

Originally scheduled for Boxing Day until Covid-19 cast its shadow over Lowe’s team, tonight’s fixture was United’s third competitive outing in the space of only 10 after previously going 20 without one.

Sheffield United captain Billy Sharp is congratulated after scoring from the penalty spot: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

That meant changes were inevitable, with Conor Hourihane, Enda Stevens and Rhian Brewster parachuted back into the starting eleven. But it was one of those who began the defeat at Derby County - Iliman Ndiaye - who went closest early on.

Albeit after Wes Foderingham, whose fellow goalkeeper Robin Olsen completed his switch to Aston Villa before-kick-off, had thwarted Scott Sinclair following a mistake by Chris Basham.

Careless and fractious during the opening exchanges, United awoke following that Preston counter.

Sheffie;ld United centre-half John Egan went close with a header before Jayden Bogle's opener: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Bogle fired home through a scrum of bodies, after Daniel Iversen had scrambled a John Egan header clear.

But the sight of central defenders Jack Robinson and Basham carrying the ball upfield, evoking memories of United’s march out of the division under his predecessor Chris Wilder, will have pleased Heckingbottom nearly as much as the scoreline.

The visitors still have a long way to go and plenty of adjustments to make before thinking about replicating that achievement. But they were going about their business with intent and rhythm - two qualities which had been lacking during a defeat at Derby County 72 hours earlier.

The defining incident of the fixture came just before the interval, with Sharp doubling United’s advantage from the spot after Hughes had seen red for hauling down Brewster. Or at least it should have done, with Foderingham excelling himself again to prevent Browne from reducing the deficit after the Preston captain had met Tom Barkhuizen’s centre.

Two efforts from Brewster, which both missed the target, should have stemmed the tide until Browne’s finish handed the hosts a lifeline. Riis ensured they grabbed it when he drilled beyond Foderingham.

Preston North End: Van den Berg, Whiteman, Bauer, Browne, Johnson, Hughes, Riis, Barkhuizen (Evans 66), Sinclair (Cunningham 40), Potts (Rafferty 46). Not used: Ripley, Lindsay, McCann, Maguire.

Sheffield United: Foderingham, Stevens (Norrington-Davies 86), Basham, Brewster (McGoldrick 70), Sharp, Egan, Norwood, Robinson, Bogle, Hourihane, Ndiaye (Berge 86). Not used: Eastwood, Burke, Slater, Gordon.

Referee: David Webb (Lancashire).