Sheffield United match verdict: Blades 2 Leyton Orient 2 ... late goals for Paddy McCarthy and Marc McNulty

Marc McNulty celebrates his goal against Leyton Orient
Marc McNulty celebrates his goal against Leyton Orient

James Wallace wasn’t even born the last time Leyton Orient won at Bramall Lane.

But, after watching Sheffield United stage a remarkable comeback only to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory, he admitted it felt as if the visitors had ended their near-36-year wait.

Having conceded in scruffy fashion when Jay Simpson prodded home during the dying embers of the first-half, United saw late strikes from Paddy McCarthy and substitute Marc McNulty establish the lead their dominance deserved.

But Orient, reduced to 10 men when Jobi McAnuff was dismissed for a second bookable offence, equalised with the very last touch of the match through Romain Vincelot.

“It does seem like a defeat,” Wallace said. “That second goal overshadowed the display.

“It’s the best we’ve had all season but the lads are devastated about Orient’s late goal. It feels like a loss.

“That performance, in my book, was a promotion performance. The team togetherness, everyone was fighting, everyone was backing each other up and battling for the second ball ... It was the best attacking performance we have had.

“It came against decent opposition too. But, like I say, it doesn’t feel like that right now.”

This, as Wallace’s inexplicable miss soon after the interval underlined, was the type of match which encourages, frustrates and confuses managers in equal measure.

The midfielder, arguably United’s most impressive performer until the introduction of McNulty and Jamal Campbell-Ryce, seemed odds on to score when Jack Price deflected Jose Baxter’s cross into his path but somehow conspired to hook the ball over the crossbar from pointblank range.

Lesser teams would have crumbled but Nigel Clough’s side, who later saw McNulty and Chris Basham hit the woodwork, persevered to claw themselves level before 60 seconds of careless play cost them two precious points.

Rather than climb to sixth, United prepare for Saturday’s Yorkshire derby against Bradford City placed 10th in the League One table. Orient slip into the relegation zone but remain unbeaten away from home since April.

Wallace added: “The gaffer told us to keep our heads up and not let the result bother us because that was the best performance. He was happy with us, the only thing he was unhappy about was the goal in the last few seconds which he said was amateurish on our part.

“Our attitude is second to none, everyone works hard for each other and the ability is starting to come through. If we keep on doing what we are doing then that, because of what we’ve got here in this group, will really start to shine through.”

Although United’s resolve is impressive, the fact they have now scored more than half their goals in the competition this season during the final 10 minutes of games also highlights the largess which, if allowed to continue, could undermine their bid for promotion.

Only Oldham Athletic have recovered more points from losing positions this term. But, as Wallace acknowledged, United must begin translating possession and chances into points rather than keep relying on their wits.

“We can’t keep doing it because it eventually bites you in the bum but if we keep putting in performances like that we will win more games than we’ll lose or draw,” he said. “It is a positive to have the mentality to get back in games when we go behind but we need to stop conceding goals and start taking the lead early.”

The dynamics of these two squads have changed dramatically since the corresponding fixture, which also ended all square, last term.

United finished the campaign with the joint 20th worst attack in the division but entered last weekend’s contest 13 positions higher and averaging 1.55 goals per game.

However, their defensive solidity has evaporated and Clough, who rested Neill Collins in an effort to redress the balance, once again rued his charges’ failure to keep a clean sheet.

Orient, who had no problems finding the back of the net en route to May’s play-off-final, returned to South Yorkshire without the same cutting edge.

But, as manager Kevin Nugent admitted afterwards, they were ready to “put bodies on the line” to prevent United scoring.

With Simpson clearing Craig Alcock’s header off the line moments before Wallace’s error and captain Nathan Clarke, who could easily have collected three cautions rather than just one, producing a superb block to prevent Baxter converting Ryan Flynn’s cross, they came mightily close to doing exactly that until McCarthy levelled following a scramble in front of Gary Woods.

“They started really well against us but we got better and better in the first half,” Nugent said. “In the second, we got camped in. We thought we may have lost it but we got back in - it was a real up-and-down afternoon.

“There were times when we had to dig in and I mean really dig in.

“But you expect to have to do that here because Sheffield United, make no mistake, are a very good side.”

Wallace, reflecting on his miss, said: “I probably couldn’t have done that again. It was the sitter of the season. It was harder to miss, wasn’t it?

“I was hoping to score my first goal for Sheffield United in front of The Kop but the ball was slightly behind me and I thought the keeper might have got it but I just stuck a foot out and it went over the bar.

“Maybe next time it will go in the net. It happens, and the fact that I was in there is a positive thing for me because I need to add that to my game, getting in the box, which is something the gaffer has been encouraging me to do.

“Today I did that but I missed the chance. I’ll get over it and go again.”

United could have taken the lead after 50 seconds but Baxter dragged Flynn’s cut-back wide before the match descended into an arm wrestle and Simpson claimed his third of the season when the usually reliable Mark Howard fumbled Elliot Omozusi’s near-post cross.

Alcock and Wallace both went close as the hosts responded while McNulty glanced the latter’s centre wide and had a ‘goal’ ruled out for offside.

In between those two attempts, McAnuff saw red following a foul on Alcock before Campbell-Ryce had a penalty appeal - “It was a good shout,” Nugent conceded - turned down after being tripped by Omozusi.

McNulty and Basham rattled the post and crossbar respectively but McCarthy and the young Scot, who has now scored four times in six starts, looked to have secured United’s fifth consecutive home win until Vincelot was left unmarked at Price’s corner and took full advantage.

“We did look solid at the back but it was a difficult ball for Mark and the lad got a little nick on it which made it even more so,” Wallace said. “But we are more gutted about the last goal than the first one.

“The second one devastated us because someone got a free header in our box in the last few seconds and that’s obviously never a good thing.”

SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Alcock 6, Harris 7, Wallace 7**, Flynn 7, Doyle 6, Murphy 7, Scougall 6***, Baxter 7*, McEveley 7, McCarthy 7. Substitutes: Basham***(75), McNulty*(61) 7, Davies, McGahey, Campbell-Ryce**(72) 7, Reed, Turner.

LEYTON ORIENT: Woods 6, Omuzusi 6, Vincelot 6, Cuthbert 7, McAnuff 5, Lowry 6, Clarke 7, Pritchard 6***, Henderson 6**, Price 6, Simpson 7*. Substitutes: Batt***(93), Lee, Kashket, Bartley**(84), Grainger, Dagnall*(69) 6, Ling.