Footballers are fond of saying the only thing that matters is the final result but sometimes, as Nigel Clough reminded after this goalless draw against Stevenage, it is important to look beyond the scoreboard and consider performances as well.
Nine months after being humbled in the corresponding fixture last term, Sheffield United returned to The Lamex Stadium and went about their business with an attention to detail and purpose which belied the club’s position towards the foot of the League One table.
Having seen his team strike the woodwork twice and limit notoriously stubborn opponents to a series of scrambled half-chances and speculative attempts from long range, Clough could have been forgiven for bemoaning the visitors’ failure to translate a display he later described as being “pretty much complete” into a resounding victory.
However, contemplating its possible implications over the busy Christmas period and beyond, the United manager insisted his players had still issued a statement of sorts.
“In situations like this, in places like this, you find out a lot about people,” Clough, reflecting upon a match played in driving wind and rain, said. “So it was pleasing to see us play with intelligence and character.
“Those are exactly the qualities we will need to get us closer to where we want to be.
“We controlled things from the beginning until the end and there were times when Stevenage struggled to cope with us. It’s not often that you are going to see them pinned onto the back foot the way they were for long periods out there.
“There’s still a long way to go and lots of work to be done but, as I told the lads in the dressing room, that was the best we’ve performed during my time here, both as individuals and the group as a whole.”
The fact United enter Boxing Day’s visit of Oldham Athletic still battling for survival can be attributed to their wretched start to the season rather than events under Clough’s stewardship.
Having returned only five points from their opening 10 games, United have accumulated 12 in eight following the former England international’s appointment two months ago and are unbeaten in six outings.
They remain far from the finished article - as Clough’s search for attacking reinforcements during the forthcoming transfer window demonstrates - but a fourth clean sheet since his arrival at Bramall Lane illustrates significant progress is being made.
On this occasion Stevenage, who according to Harry Maguire had celebrated March’s 4-0 triumph with all the zeal of a team which “had won the World Cup”, finished their latest contest against United breathing a sigh of relief instead.
“We created enough out there,” Clough said. “And we wasted a few as well.
“But often, putting the ball in the back of the net isn’t just about quality, it’s also about getting that little bit of luck.
“There was no lack of intent and we were positive throughout, even with the changes that we made.
“We deliberated long and hard about our selections beforehand and, in the end, we didn’t make a decision until a few hours before kick-off. That was because we wanted to strike the
right balance between combating Stevenage’s strengths and accentuating our own.
“But there as certainly no lack of intent or positivity. It was pretty much the complete performance and the only thing that was missing was a goal.”
But for a combination of over-ex
bad luck, United could have scored several before Francois Zoko forced George Long, who had earlier shown great bravery to deny Jordan Burrow when Luke Freeman’s pass deflected into his path, to make his only genuine save of note.
Chris Day, the Stevenage goalkeeper, parried Aidy White’s early shot on to a post as United seized control of the early exchanges before Shaun Miller, one of three changes to Clough’s starting 11, fired inches wide after ghosting beyond his marker.
Felipe Morais, later withdrawn by Stevenage manager Graham Westley, was fortunate not to receive a red card when, having already been cautioned for a scything challenge on Tony McMahon, he bundled Miller to the turf as United poured forward.
Jose Baxter, whose movement and positional sense troubled the hosts’ rearguard throughout, enjoyed the first of three second-half chances after adjusting his balance perfectly when
Hill and Michael Doyle combined.
That attempt, like a later opening created by White’s persistence, was off target. Sandwiched in between, Baxter was unfortunate not to score his third goal in as many matches after beating Day but not the post.
Zoko, whose contract in Hertfordshire expires shortly, demonstrated why his services are in much demand when Long acrobatically palmed the Ivorian’s looping effort over the bar, but United should have condemned Stevenage, two places and points behind them in the rankings, to defeat when the otherwise lively Miller inexplicably checked his run rather than pounced upon Chris Porter’s glancing header which subsequently flew behind.
“Attitude wise, I thought we were spot on,” Clough said.
“We were sensible when we had to be and got the ball down and passed in the right places as well.
“There were some really good passages of play out there.
“Of course, we were trying to win but, regarding all the other aspects, we have to make sure we continue in the same vein.”