BLADES boss Danny Wilson has insisted that mental strength, not ability to manipulate a football, will decide which of the division’s leading teams are fast-tracked from League One into the Championship next season.
Sheffield United were forced to rely on graft rather than grey matter for long periods against Colchester last night after seeing Steven Gillespie wipe out Will Hoskins’ opener.
Hoskins, the former Rotherham centre-forward, has cut a frustrated figure at times since returning to South Yorkshire on-loan from Brighton and Hove Albion.
But he marked a rare start in United colours with a goal which should have laid the foundations for a resounding win until Colchester, previously outclassed and out-thought, were inexplicably handed a route back into the contest courtesy of Gillespie’s superb second-half strike.
United are second in the League One table with 10 matches of the season remaining, so the technical prowess of Wilson’s side cannot be questioned.
But the United manager must be wondering how his team, having dominated long spells of this re-arranged fixture, failed to put clear red and white water between those clubs hoping to avoid being asked to plot a more convoluted route towards promotion.
The sight of Wilson’s players shaking their heads as they trudged off the pitch following the final whistle confirmed that, while a point had been gained, this was also an opportunity lost.
United delivered an accomplished display but failed to forge the openings after the break which would surely have brought them greater reward.
Colchester’s hierarchy were clearly suffering from a lack of inspiration when they moved into their new home four years ago.
The ‘Weston Homes Community Stadium’ does not roll off the tongue in quite the same way as - say - the Essex Empire or Coliseum but it’s functional surroundings suit John Ward’s side.
United, making their first ever visit to this compact ground hugging the hard shoulder of the A12, encountered opponents who, prior to kick-off, had been beaten only once at home since the turn of the year and harboured ambitions of top-six qualification themselves.
A smart reaction save from Steve Simonsen - smothering Ian Henderson’s low drive at the second attempt - prevented Colchester from making the perfect start as they sought to further those aims with the much-coveted Anthony Wordsworth depositing an overhead kick on the roof of the United goalkeeper’s net.
However, Wilson’s men asserted themselves when Stephen Quinn saw a 14th- minute shot deflected wide following an intricate exchange involving Hoskins and Lee Williamson.
Williamson, again orchestrating the midfield, made his presence felt when Ben Williams was forced to punch clear his corner midway through the opening period.
Having recently claimed the scalp of leaders Charlton Athletic, though, Colchester are not a club to be cowed into submission by reputation alone and served notice of their intention to test United’s resolve with two long-range attempts from Gillespie.
However, despite their determination to try and test United’s resolve, Colchester appeared unable to do so until Gillespie pounced.
Although the return of Harry Maguire and Matthew Lowton from suspension has restored some much-needed stability to a United defence which has lost some of its aura in recent weeks, concerns still exist about its ability to withstand long spells of pressure in Neill Collins’ absence.
Wordsworth attempted to exploit its fragile lines of communication by harassing Simonsen and Marcus Williams to concede a corner following a hopeful punt forward.
But Hoskins’ clinical 32nd-minute finish soothed United nerves when Evans demonstrated his new-found maturity by electing to release his fellow forward rather than shoot after Chris Porter, benefiting from Wilson’s decision to name an unchanged starting 11, had found Quinn.
Evans, though, did try his luck from distance immediately after the restart but could only fire the ball wide.
Colchester seemed destined to concede again until the previously woeful Kayode Odejayi discovered his touch and created the opening for Gillespie to sweep the ball over Simonsen’s head and into the back of the net in the 56th minute.
Confidence restored, Colchester twice went close again in quick succession, but Evans pegged them back with a wonderful individual cameo which ended with his low drive being deflected wide.
Odejayi completed his journey from the ridiculous to the sublime by teasing his way through a crowded penalty area and testing Simonsen at the near post.
Evans replied with a long-range free-kick during the closing stages but Colchester held firm.
COLCHESTER: B Williams 6, Okuonghae 6, Gillespie 7, Izzet 7, Bond 6, Odejayi 6, Henderson 6 (Duguid 88), Eastman 6, Wilson 6, Wordsworth 6, White 6. Not used: Rose, Heath, Vincent, Sears.
BLADES: Simonsen 6, Lowton 6, Hoskins 7 (Cresswell 69, 6), Doyle 7, Evans 8, Williamson 7, Maguire 7, Porter 6 (Beattie 80), Quinn 7, M Williams 6, Hill 6. Not used: Montgomery, Howard, Egan.
Bookings: Hill (25), White (55), Evans (86), Izzet (86).