Another game, another set of challenges for Nigel Clough and his Sheffield United team.
The visitors’ manager, despite acknowledging beforehand that he would prefer to secure a place in the end of season play-offs at the earliest possible opportunity, the twin evils of injury and fatigue prompted him to make five changes for their third match in the space of a week.
This fixture, against an Oldham Athletic side comfortably positioned in mid-table, represented an opportunity to take another huge step towards achieving Clough’s objective. And, despite the rotation, United made a positive start with Marc McNulty and Ryan Flynn inches away from applying a decisive touch to John Brayford’s angled cross.
However, it did not last long as a generally ragged performance pockmarked with too few moments of quality, ended with them trailing 2-0 at the break. United promised plenty on occasion but, for the opening 45 minutes at least, were unable to produce any tangible reward.
There was no shortage of familiar faces in the Athletic squad with Connor Brown, Daniel Philliskirk and Dominic Poleon all starting while Jacob Mellis, who was also on United’s books before joining Chelsea, was named on bench.
Indeed, after Rhys Turner had charged down Mark Howard’s third minute clearance, it was Philliskirk who nearly pounced on the pass his colleague deposited behind a back four which had begun to inch upfield.
But, as the battle for midfield supremacy became increasingly fractious, it was Mike Jones who profited the most.
The former Scotland under-21 international, who joined Athletic as part of the agreement which saw Korey Smith move to Ashton Gate, tested Howard with a low 20 yard drive before sending Mike Jones scampering towards the six yard box with a clever slide rule pass. Terry Kennedy, who initially appeared to have lost his marker, recovered at the vital moment to clear.
As the half approached its midpoint stage, so the pressure being applied by Dean Holden’s charges grew.
Nevertheless, in the 19th minute, Jamie Murphy surged deep into Athletic territory following a corner and released Mcnulty. The Scot, making his first start since March 3rd, squared the ball rather than shot. Moments later, after combining with Flynn, he beat the off-side trap but Joel Coleman smothered his shot from close range.
It proved to be a vital save because, in the 22nd minute POLEON gave Athletic the lead. Some indecisive defending left both the former United loanee and Philliskirk bearing down on Chris Basham and ended with a low shot being dragged across Howard and into the far corner of United’s net.
The set-back appeared to focus United minds.
A decent period of pressure ended with Murphy sweeping an excellent free-kick towards the back of Coleman’s penalty area which Brayford, peeling away from his marker, met but could not keep down.
Jones was presented with the opportunity to follow suit when Reed was cautioned for a foul but his delivery fell kindly for Michael Doyle.
Joe Mills joined Reed in the referee’s notebook for a trip on Flynn just before the interval but there was still time for POLEON to score his and Athletic’s second. His 30 yard strike was memorable. United’s scrappy play, which presented him with the opportunity to power into the roof of Howard’s net, was anything but.
It was no surprise when United, who saw Jason Holt cautioned during the dying embers of a disappointing first-half, made two changes for the start of the second with Stefan Scougall and Paul Coutts entering the fray.
Kennedy and Reed were withdrawn while Athletic introduced Mat Sadler at the expense of Mills.
The stadium announcer had described the opening 45 minutes as “The Dominic Poleon Show” as the two sides emerged from the tunnel. He spurned a glorious chance to stamp his authority on the next 45 too when yet more indecisive defending saw the ball bounce across Howard’s six yard box. Had Kieron Freeman not been as brave, flinging himself in front of the centre-forward’s boot as he primed to shoot, then Athletic’s lead would surely have been three.
However, there was no disputing the fact that United were now going about their work with a greater degree of convinction. And, in the 56th minute, they dragged themselves back into the game when Coutts crossed for HOLT to prod home from three yards.
It also saw them seize control of a fixture which had previously been drifting away.
Brayford smashed a set-piece against the wall after Holt had been barged over 25 yards from goal but, in the 73rd minute, MURPHY drew United level from a disputed corner. Scougall’s centre reached the far post where it was headed back by Brayford. Basham thought he had scored and was wheeling away in celebration when Coleman somehow scrambled clear but Murphy was on hand to score.
Then, after Steven Davies had replaced McNulty, Doyle saw a superb long-range piledriver canon back off the post with Coleman beaten.
Oldham brought on Rhys Murphy for the tireless Philliskirk with eight minutes left. In the 92nd, a foul by Flynn saw Jones take a free-kick on the edge of United’s area but it hit the wall and this contest of two halves ended all-square.
OLDHAM ATHLETIC: Coleman, Brown, Mills, Kelly, Jones, Poleon, Philliskirk, Winchester, Wilson, Lockwood, Turner. Substitutes: Kean, Mellis, Wilkinson, Wilson, Kusunga, Sadler, R Murphy.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard, Brayford, Basham, Flynn, Doyle, J Murphy, McNulty, Reed, Freeman, Kennedy, Holt. Substitutes: Alcock, Scougall, Baxter, Done, Coutts, Turner, S Davies.
REFEREE: R Clark (Northumberland),