SHEFFIELD United’s woes at Bramall Lane continued last night as they were beaten by Crawley Town.
The result, which means Danny Wilson’s side have failed to win on home soil since February, represents a serious blow to their hopes of automatic promotion.
Second-half strikes from Billy Clarke and Paul Hayes ensured United stay fifth in the table with five matches left.
Given the notoriously unpredictable nature of League One this term, illustrated by defeats elsewhere for leaders Doncaster Rovers and Swindon Town, Wilson can take some comfort from the fact that the damage caused could have been even greater.
But United’s apparent phobia of playing on their own ground has become a real problem and is threatening to undermine much of the good work they have achieved over the past eight months.
Ryan Flynn, who hit the post with a first-half shot, caught the eye with his industry and invention.
Sergio Torres, a well-travelled Argentine, impressed for Town who enjoyed another huge slice of luck when Jamie Murphy also saw an excellent attempt rebound back off the woodwork early in the second-half.
But the anxiety which has seeped into United’s squad of late was almost tangible at times as Wilson’s charges struggled to generate a prolonged spell of momentum.
Clarke took full advantage when he claimed his 13th of the campaign during the closing stages before Hayes piled on the agony following a rare slip from Harry Maguire.
United, by contrast, head into Saturday’s crucial meeting with fellow contenders Swindon searching for their first goal here in over six hours of football. A worrying statistic at such a pivotal stage.
Despite being well positioned in the table, United had entered this match under pressure. Not only to secure the points required to further their top two credentials but also to deliver a performance capable of satisfying a crowd frustrated by their chequered results at home.
United’s challenge for Championship football has been built on a solid defence rather than swashbuckling attack this term.
The fact that Clarke, their former loanee, was the first player to breach their rearguard here since his namesake Leon netted for Coventry City over two months ago, will provide little consolation given United’s difficulties at the other end of the pitch.
Wilson, acutely aware of the need to get the sceptics on side, acknowledged beforehand that United must do everything within their power to peg Town back from the start.
It proved easier said than done as Torres’s darting first- minute run was halted only by an assistant referee’s flag and the first howls of derision emanated from the main stand when Matt Hill failed to convincingly clear his lines soon after.
Flynn, recalled following injury, grasped the nettle with a surging drive along the flank which created an opportunity for Michael Doyle and brought supporters to their feet.
Jonathan Forte followed suit moments later but his cross towards the far post was dealt with well by Mat Sadler.
Town, despite having nothing at stake but their pride, were well-drilled and durable.
With Connor Essam and Joe Walsh a physically imposing wall in front of Paul Jones, invention rather than industry appeared United’s best route to goal.
Flynn twice came within a whisker of releasing Forte with a slide rule pass.
Hill lobbed an enterprising ball over the top of Town’s rearguard but Murphy could not control.
Midway through the first-half, Neill Collins met Flynn’s corner in convincing fashion only to see his header fly over.
That near miss was quickly followed by a spell of United pressure which saw Forte and Kevin McDonald trying their luck from range.
Another opportunity presented itself when Hill, much to the delight of fans growing increasingly annoyed by Nigel Miller’s officiating, won a free-kick 30 yards from goal.
With set-piece specialist Tony McMahon serving the final match of his two game suspension, fellow defender Danny Higginbotham assumed responsibility but although he beat the wall, Jones comfortably saved.
Four minutes before the interval, Town’s goalkeeper was beaten by Flynn’s angled effort although the woodwork came to his rescue.
United were indebted to George Long for ensuring they did not fall behind in the 44th minute when he denied Clarke with an acrobatic save.
Murphy was unfortunate not to edge the hosts in front three minutes after the re-start when his looping effort hit a post and Flynn was only a whisker away from converting the rebound.
Torres’ low drive was smothered by Long as Town responded and Nicky Adams blazed rashly wide after robbing Kitson of possession.
McFadzean and Porter were called upon to try and wrestle back the advantage with the latter immediately winning a free-kick just outside the penalty area which Doyle tried and failed to power through the wall.
Porter should have scored when he met Kitson’s centre following an excellent interchange with Higginbotham but misjudged his angles.
Clarke made no such mistake in the 77th minute when he stroked the ball home from Town substitute Paul Hayes’ cross. Hayes doubled the visitors’ advantage eight minutes later after Maguire’s slip.