A breakthrough in the transfer market just hours before kick-off briefly eased the fractious relationship between Sheffield United’s hierarchy and the League One club’s support but, after another set-back, the differences soon returned.
Nigel Adkins’ side departed the stadium to a chorus of boos after Burton Albion’s Lucas Akins scored the only goal of a sometimes soporific game which cast further doubt on their top six credentials.
The return of Nigel Clough, for the first time since being sacked by United during the close season, provided a fascinating sub-plot to last night’s match at Bramall Lane.
Ultimately, though, a contest which his successor acknowledged would shape the hosts’ mood both on and off the pitch was always going to settled by a mistake or moment of skill rather than the personalities in the technical area.
In the end, it turned-out to be a combination of both with Akins finding the back of the net in clinical fashion after an error from Paul Coutts to condemn United to their latest painful and potentially damaging defeat.
Alex Baptiste, signed on loan from Middlesbrough yesterday, and debutant Ben Whiteman were introduced as Adkins’ charges searched for an equaliser but to no avail.
United remain four points behind the play-off positions but now have traffic to negotiate after slipping two places to 12th.
Clough was unfairly labelled ‘Negative Nigel’ by sections of the home crowd during his 104 games in charge but Burton were the more enterprising, disciplined and cohesive unit here. After surviving an early flurry, which saw Matt Done and Billy Sharp go close, the leaders imposed their authority on the game before taking a 50th minute lead when Akins converted Damien McCrory’s pass.
Given Burton’s ability to keep opponents at bay and United’s diminishing returns in attack - they had scored only twice in six outings prior to this meeting - it was a costly goal to concede.
Confidence drained, moves petered out and, on the evidence of an insipid second-half display, so did their hopes of forcing themselves back into promotion contention.
Adkins and his predecessor are polar opposites, as people and managers, but both have grappled with exactly the same problems during their respective reigns. Adkins, whose desire to tranform United into the division’s great entertainers supposedly made him the antithesis of the more pragmatic Clough, has tactfully explained why he has been forced to compromise some of his tactical principles in recent weeks. The former England international meanwhile, who subscribes to the theory that football and diplomacy do not mix, also made strategic concessions after inheriting a squad bearing the scars of multitudinous changes in October 2013. Nineteen months, two major cup-semi-finals and one ill-fated play-off campaign later, Clough departed amid claims that what had initially been portrayed as a long-term project was, in fact, anything but.
Adkins, who signed a three-year contract after being unveiled during the close season, will have a degree of sympathy despite acknowledging that promotion is the immediate aim.
Burton made the short journey north boasting the best defensive record in the division but they were forced to live on their wits during the opening skirmishes as United tried to wrestle control. Done, profiting from Sharp’s perfectly-weighted slide-rule pass, was thwarted by Jon McLaughlin before the centre-forward’s header beat the Burton goalkeeper - but not his colleague Phil Edwards.
Eventually, though, the individual errors which have proven so costly for United of late threatened to creep back into their game with both Calum Butcher and Mark Duffy testing George Long after being left unmarked.
Clough, who had received a generous round of applause from the home crowd after taking his place in the dug-out, will have been slightly troubled by how the fixture was unfolding. Nevertheless, with United committing men forward, there were also no shortage of gaps for the visitors to exploit, with Duffy’s influence growing as the match progressed.
Indeed, it was Burton who finished the opening period on top with Stuart Beavon and Akins both spurning opportunities to break the deadlock before Akins pounced early in the second-half. The former Stevenage and Tranmere Rovers marksman picked his spot perfectly - threading the ball home past George Long’s outstretched palm - but, yet again, United were the architects of their own downfall with Coutts cheaply conceding possession to set the move in motion.
Baptiste began the evening on the bench as United recalled Neill Collins and Coutts to their starting eleven while Whiteman was among three academy graduates in Adkins’ squad. Burton, meanwhile, began the evening in exactly the manner United’s coaching staff suspected they would; squeezing space and packing the midfield. A chance for Done, however, sparked the contest into life with Sharp also going close before Long did well to deny Butcher at the other end of the pitch. Ten minutes before the interval, Duffy’s centre was met by Akins but his backwards header was comfortably gathered by Long. The 22-year-old breathed a sigh of relief when Beavon’s 25-yard attempt flew over the crossbar soon after but it was only a temporary reprieve with Akins claiming his sixth goal of the season early in the second-half.
Akins saw another low drive smothered by Long after rebounding off Neill Collins’ back.
Sheffield United: Long, Brayford, Basham, Coutts (Whiteman 59), Sharp, Done, Collins, McEveley (Baptiste 65), Adams, Cuvelier (Calvert-Lewin 59), Edgar. Not used: Howard, Flynn, Sammon, Reed.
Burton Albion: McLaughlin, Edwards, Cansdell-Sherriff, Mousinho, Weir, Beavon (Bennett 74), Akins, Butcher (Flanagan 90), McCrory, Naylor, Duffy (Reilly 85). Not used: Harness, O’Connor, Bywater, Choudhury.
Referee: Sebastian Stockbridge (Tyne and Wear).