BIG games hinge on fine margins but so, as Matt Smith reminded Sheffield United, do bread and butter ones too.
Leading courtesy of Nick Blackman’s penalty and having apparently weathered Oldham Athletic’s spirited response, Danny Wilson’s side were seemingly destined for second in the table until the visiting substitute pounced deep into added time to ensure they finished a controversial fixture a little lower instead.
United, who are allowing police to investigate claims a ball boy was verbally abused by Athletic midfielder Lee Croft, remain unbeaten in league competition this term but, as captain Michael Doyle acknowledged afterwards, being held their seventh draw in 12 outings meant the result actually “felt like a defeat”.
“It’s frustrating,” he acknowledged. “We’ve got to be better at home and that wasn’t near enough to the standards to which we aspire.
“Fair play to Oldham because they pressured us but we needed to show a bit more composure. We do seem to be finding it tougher at home.”
“The way they celebrated at the end shows what getting a draw against us means,
“In any case, we should have been much more comfortable by then.”
Although United’s disappointment at both the timing and manner of Athletic’s comeback was etched across Doyle’s face - “I‘m not going to deny it. I feel like we‘ve lost.” - they could not argue about the final outcome.
Publicly, Wilson was in phlegmatic mood when he dissected his team’s chequered performance, acknowledging Ryan Flynn should have put the match beyond reach before Smith prodded home Jose Baxter’s 97th-minute centre but preferring to focus on Blackman’s burgeoning partnership with Dave Kitson and teenage goalkeeper George Long’s assured display instead.
Privately, he will have been seething after watching United, despite lacking cohesion and rhythm, wrestle themselves into a winning position only to pay the price for a late but costly lapse.
The main talking point afterwards, however, was Croft’s altercation with the youngster during the closing stages as the hosts prepared to take a throw.
Croft, on loan from Derby County, protested his innocence afterwards, asking “what have I done wrong?” and citing “passion” as a defence.
Clearly his alleged victim thought otherwise, though, and refused to accept the 27-year-old’s apology as they made their way off the pitch.
“I felt sorry for the lad but he didn’t want to know,” Croft, who categorically denies any wrongdoing, said. “He didn’t want to know - he pushed my hand away.
“What have I done wrong? I didn’t use foul and abusive language.”
Wilson’s opposite number, had claimed his team were under “no pressure” to claim arguably the most coveted scalp in the division and would attack with enthusiasm and abandon.
Pressing high up the field and happy to commit men forward, Athletic saw an early Jonathan Grounds effort disallowed for offside after Long had parried Robbie Simpson’s initial attempt.
Inexplicably, though, they failed to test
Long’s mettle under an aerial bombardment until Smith’s entrance with only eight minutes remaining.
“George did really well,” Doyle said. “He didn’t do anything wrong and we’ve all got a lot of confidence in him.
United, who return to action when they face Notts County in the Johnstone’s
Paint Trophy on Wednesday evening, spent much of the opening period on the back foot but started the second in much more purposeful fashion with Marcus Williams going close from an acute angle and Doyle testing Dean Bouzanis’ reactions from long-range.
Jean Yves M’voto’s moment of madness threatened to undo all of Athletic’s good work - the French centre-half wrestling Dave Kitson to the ground in the area - by allowing Blackman to claim his sixth goal of the campaign from the spot.
But when Flynn, intercepting Reece Wabara’s stray pass, shot wide with only Bouzanis to beat, Smith seized his chance. Long, who had earlier produced a fine save to deny Matt Derbyshire, was powerless to prevent the towering striker from converting.
With Mark Howard expected to be absent for up to three months through injury, Wilson will renew his attempts to recruit a new goalkeeper later this week but, nevertheless, was also full of praise for the teenager’s contribution.
United were less convinced, however, about referee Scott Mathieson’s timekeeping although Doyle insisted: “We can’t blame him. We’ve got to look to ourselves.
“It’s still very early days yet though and we’re in a good position.”