Mixed feelings for Sheffield United and Barnsley after derby stalemate
At times it was brilliant and breathtaking; others, it was faltering and frustrating.
But ultimately, Saturday’s goalless draw at home to South Yorkshire rivals Barnsley added up to a combination of the two.
A Blades Failure.
Failure to break down a stubborn and resolute Barnsley side fighting for their own play-off lives. Failure to get that elusive goal which, with results elsewhere going in their favour, would have taken Nigel Adkins’ side to within a point of the top-six.
And for the fifth season running - an eternity for Blades’ supporters - failure to escape from the clutches of League One.
In the end, after 90 minutes of blood-and-thunder derby action at Bramall Lane, a point was probably fair for both teams but suited neither. While United could mathematically still finish in the top six, Adkins - a man who rarely, if ever, deviates from positivity - admits they had to win here. Paul Heckingbottom, his opposite number from Barnsley, says this was United’s ‘cup final’ and will take heart from a gutsy, skilful and almost-complete performance from his players, who look a wholly different proposition from when the sides last met back in November.
Then, Barnsley slipped to the bottom of the table despite Conor Hourihane’s late screamer, which avoided a tenth loss in 11 league games.
Lee Johnson, the then-Barnsley boss, thought it could be a big point and of the Reds’ next 23 games, they lost just three.
A point here, five months and 24 games later, sent them sixth, with the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley thrown in for good measure. No wonder the 3,694 travelling fans were hailing Heckingbottom as their king long into the evening.
Adam Hammill, the elder statesman of Barnsley’s line-up at 28, missed his side’s best early chance when he fired straight at George Long when well-placed, and later wore the ball in an unfortunate place to leave him prostrate on the turf.
Sam Winnall, Barnsley’s 20-goal striker, fouled United goalkeeper George Long and was booked before the game’s major flashpoint. Ryan Flynn dallied in possession and was forced towards his own goal, and went down under the slightest contact from Winnall. Ashley Fletcher finished coolly, but David Coote had blown for the foul and the premature celebrations from the away end were curtailed.
Coote booked both Dean Hammond and Matt Done for two fouls on Lloyd Isgrove within minutes, and the frustration levels around Bramall Lane were cranked up a notch when Billy Sharp miskicked from Chris Basham’s header.
Still, both sides pushed for the winner and Hammill and Sharp both exchanged chances before Conor Sammon, United’s much-maligned striker, made a late appearance off the bench and almost won it late on, his effort blocked by the impressive Marc Roberts after a foray forward by Alex Baptiste.
Fellow sub Martyn Woolford’s cross was inches away from finding Sharp but despite a sustained spell of pressure - and a late boost from the home crowd - couldn’t produce a winner. On the full-time whistle, a disconsolate Basham, Che Adams and David Edgar sunk to the turf and a rousing reception from the home fans gave the impression of a season ended.
Meanwhile, Barnsley’s babes - with an average age of 23 - march on. With the play-offs beckoning, they’ve come of age.