Boss Chris Wilder has spent much of the season searching for ingenious new ways to avoid describing his team as genuine promotion contenders.
Although this result meant he had no need to prevaricate, the manner of Sheffield United’s defeat presented their manager with a much more difficult conundrum to solve.
“We’ve been discussing it in the changing room and we’re all baffled how we didn’t get anything from the game,” John Lundstram, whose early goal appeared to have laid the foundations for an emphatic win, said.
“It was a great effort from the lads and you could tell the way they celebrated at the end how difficult we’d made it for them.”
Although Nottingham Forest’s reaction to the final whistle could also be attributed to the fact it signalled the end of their four-match losing streak, United caused all manner of problems and can count themselves desperately unfortunate to lose.
Mark Duffy excelled on his return to the starting 11, Enda Stevens posed a threat along the flanks and Lundstram, making his full league debut for Wilder’s side following five substitute appearances, celebrated the occasion with a clinical finish before either team had broken sweat.
It should have laid the platform for a resounding win but instead, through a combination of dogged persistence and good fortune, Forest wrestled back the advantage through Jason Cummings and Kieran Dowell.
With Forest manager Mark Warburton gesticulating wildly on the touchline and Wilder growing increasingly animated, Duffy saw a shot parried to safety by Jordan Smith before Cameron Carter-Vickers struck a post during the closing stages.
Lundstram said: “Early on, we really dominated, then a couple of mistakes led to their first goal. But it’s something we’ll look at and iron out. Either way, we deserved something from that.”
Lundstram was correct. United’s contribution to a thoroughly absorbing fixture was worthy of a point at least. But, as the summer signing from Oxford acknowledged, the fact the Blades failed to enter the international break on level terms with leaders Cardiff City could be traced back to the beginning of the first half. Trailing 1-0 after less than two minutes, Forest were all at sea and in danger of being completely overwhelmed.
However, the visitors’ inability to settle the fixture there and then meant, when John Fleck’s mistake presented Cummings with the opportunity to equalise, Warburton’s men benefited from a bigger shot of confidence than might otherwise have been the case.
It was, Lundstram conceded, a timely reminder about the differences between the division United now find themselves in and the one they have just left.
“Definitely,” he agreed. “That’s the Championship. You get punished for your mistakes whereas in League One that doesn’t always happen. It’s a step-up in levels.”
Nevertheless, United, who despite surrendering second place in the table remain in a play-off berth, are coping supremely well.
Duffy’s technical prowess and spatial awareness were a joy to behold during the opening period, leaving Forest’s defence unsure whether to stick, chase or twist.
Together with Stevens, he seized control of the match straight from kick-off until, following Dowell’s strike, the hosts finally began to pose some questions of their own.
Nevertheless, it spoke volumes that Wilder, never the best of losers, even found something positive to talk about when discussing Cummings’ leveller.
“Flecky’s clearance wasn’t great,” he said. “But his response was brilliant. He didn’t hide, he got straight back on the ball, and that tells you what he’s all about. In the not so distant past, there will have been players here who in the same circumstances wouldn’t have done that. They’d have wanted to get off that pitch as quickly as possible.”
THE MANAGER’S RESPECT
Wilder was equally complimentary about his opposite number, Warburton, and the character his squad showed.
A fortnight earlier, after watching United lose to a Norwich City team whose gamesmanship and duplicity knew no apparent bounds, even the opposition coach-driver was criticised during a passionate post-match rant. But here Wilder struck an entirely different tone.
“Mark is a proper football person and this is a proper football club,” he said, before referencing Forest’s European Cup triumphs under the legendary Brian Clough. “The two stars on their shirts mean something, you know.
“I thought that was a proper football match. There was a tackle in the second half, Chris Basham and their lad going full pelt for a 50/50 ball, that told you all you need to know. They both got up, no complaints, and carried on. If that had happened in another game, you would have seen their players rolling over and crowding around the referee.”
United took the lead when Lundstram turned home Stevens’ low centre before Forest pounced in strange circumstances. A poor corner was met by an even poorer clearance and Cummings smashed the ball beyond Jamal Blackman.
Dowell pounced when a cross was deflected into his path and Cummings spurned a chance to stretch Forest’s lead just before the break.
Forest were in the ascendancy at the beginning of the second period but United came on strong at the death, with Duffy firing inches wide and Carter-Vickers heading against an upright.
“We went gung-ho at the end and I thought Duff, who was magnificent, had done it,” Lundstram said. “It’s frustrating but you can see we’re more than okay.”