A cocktail of recent history and the cult of the coach meant it was inevitable this match would be billed as a battle between Nigel Adkins and Phil Parkinson.
But football is ultimately about players, not managers. And, at the Coral Windows Stadium yesterday, neither those of Bradford City or Sheffield United could fashion a win, although Adkins’ men, having seemingly been destined for a third straight defeat, certainly had greater cause for celebration.
“The character of the lads was spot on,” Adkins said. “And, with the situation we found ourselves in, it had to be.
“We don’t want to be falling behind, we don’t want to make a habit of it. But, to be fair, the one thing they don’t do is give up. No matter what else happens, they keep on fighting, and that’s a good quality to have. We took a point but we came here wanting all three.”
Parkinson, who featured on the shortlist of names considered by United before Adkins’ appointment three months ago, insisted his desire to win was professional rather than personal.
After watching City relinquish a 2-0 lead, he could be forgiven for taking the opposite approach when they contest the return at Bramall Lane in three months.
James Meredith and Devante Cole put the the hosts in the driving seat before a change of shape and approach proved the catalyst for United’s spirited comeback. Billy Sharp, scoring for the fifth time in only nine outings, ensured they claimed a share of the spoils after Meredith’s own goal had reduced the deficit.
“Bradford were the better team in the first half,” Adkins said. “We knew they’d be direct and, whether you like it or not, you know the presence of their centre-forward (James Hanson) is a huge threat. I thought we started brightly and then come through the storm.”
Jose Baxter can frustrate and thrill in equal measure. Having only recently returned from a three-match suspension, he did the latter here; producing a sumptuous pass to present Sharp with his equaliser before clearing Hanson’s 95th-minute header off the line.
“We need the right character and the desire to respond in the right manner,” Adkins said. “All the players, including Jose, are showing that.”
Both of City’s goals, though deserved at the time, were wholly preventable, with Meredith and Cole profiting from United’s failure to decisively clear their lines.
But what Adkins’ charges lacked in defensive quality, they more than compensated for in terms of character.
If the lifeline Meredith handed them was foruitious - a deflected, looping header leaving Brad Jones stranded - Sharp’s equaliser was superb. The former Leeds centre-forward showed dogged persistence, turning home after his initial attempt had been saved, but the goal was all about Baxter’s defence-splitting pass.
“We had to change things around because, to begin with, Bradford were winning far too many balls in midfield,” Adkins acknowledged. “Jose came on so Louis (Reed) and Bash (Chris Basham) could get forward more.”
As expected, United, with Marc McNulty and Reed returning to the starting 11, came under considerable pressure during the opening exchanges as City tested a rearguard which had been breached three times in each of its last two outings.
It was Lee Evans’ set-pieces which appeared the hosts’ best route to goal. One, after 10 minutes of hard-fought action, was scrambled clear by Mark Howard while another nearly sneaked into the back of the net despite being conceded within spitting distance of the touchline.
The pattern, City edging forward while United tried to hit on the counter-attack, continued for most of the first period.
An expertly-constructed move insitigated by Reed and maintained by Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Jay McEveley ended with McNulty making an imperfect connection with a close-range header. Arguably the best opening of the afternoon, though, until Meredith pounced in the 34th minute, came when Sharp peeled away from his marker after Martyn Woolford seized possession but the pass was just a shade too strong.
City deserved to take the lead, although Adkins will have been dismayed to see United give them a helping hand. Meredith, scoring for the first time since October 2012, was delighted to receive such generous assistance. Likewise Cole, whose took advantage of indecision between David Edgar and Howard, when he extended City’s lead in the 48th minute.
Inexplicably, they allowed it to slip in the space of five second-half minutes when Meredith found the net again - albeit his own - and Sharp showed persistence following Baxter’s superb assist.
McNulty and Mark Marshall traded chances before Baxter cleared from Hanson in the final second of the contest.
“Second half, apart from the ricochet for their goal, I thought it was our game,” Adkins said.
Bradford City: Jones 7, Darby 6, Meredith 6, Evans 7 (Knott 80), Marshall 7 (James 90), Liddle 6, Hanson 6, Burke 6, McArdle 6, Anderson 6, Cole 7 (Davies 80). Not used: Williams, N Clarke, Leigh, McMahon.
Sheffield United: Howard 6, Freeman 6, Basham 6, Sharp 6, McNulty 6, Collins 7, Woolford 6 (Baxter 59, 7), McEveley 6 (Alcock 46, 7), Campbell-Ryce 6 (Sammon 59, 7), Reed 6, Edgar 6. Not used: Long, Scougall, Higdon, McGahey.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire).
Attendance: 19,317 (1,479).