Sheffield United: Blades’ play-off hopes dashed but Clough says future looks bright

Connor Dimaio gets away from Tranmere's Ryan Lowe
Connor Dimaio gets away from Tranmere's Ryan Lowe
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Sheffield United’s faint hopes of qualifying for the League One play-offs might have evaporated following this stalemate against

Tranmere Rovers.

Jose Baxter against Tranmere

Jose Baxter against Tranmere

However, despite the knowledge that his team are destined to spend at least another season in the third tier of English football, aspects of their performance pleased manager Nigel Clough no end.

Less than twelve weeks ago United, 10 points behind sixth-placed Peterborough with three games remaining, were languishing in the relegation zone following a potentially catastrophic defeat at Crewe Alexandra.

Twenty fixtures later, Clough’s squad can reflect on a sequence of results which, even though promotion is now beyond their grasp, has delivered an FA Cup semi-final appearance and enabled to them travel to the North-West with a mathematic chance of overhauling Darren Ferguson’s side.

“To even have been in with a shout is testament to how far the lads have come,” Clough said. “And in such a short space of time.

“There has been so much packed into the last few months, emotionally and physically, that you can excuse them for looking a little bit jaded and tired. It’s only to be expected.

“But what they have got is a really resiliant streak now. They don’t like getting beat and, if they’ve got to roll-up their sleeves and dig in then that’s exactly what they’ll do. It’s things like that which, providing we keep on improving, will stand us in good stead for the future.”

United had begun the afternoon 10 places above their hosts in the table but, for long periods, it seemed as if the rankings had been turned on their head.

Ryan Lowe, who despite his advancing years remains a bundle of energy and invention in attack, posed questions of both Neill Collins and Harry Maguire during a fractious first-half before the introduction of Michael Doyle and Jose Baxter saw United regain their poise.

Indeed it was the latter who presented Rovers’ goalkeeper with his sternest test of the match after unleashing a long-range shot during the closing stages which the Welshman palmed away to safety.

“Even the best players in the world get tired mentally,” Clough said. “That’s why you get a team like Chelsea, who have been fighting for honours on every front, getting beaten by Sunderland, who are in trouble, at this stage of the season.

“Yes, there were things we could have done better out there but it’s been a big ask for these lads lately. A really big ask.

“So no wonder there are a few tired minds and legs.”

Rovers, with John McMahon at the helm following Ronnie Moore’s dismissal earlier this month, have endured a season to forget after mouting an unlikely challenge for the top six last term.

However, the former Liverpool and Shrewsbury Town coach has used the sense of grievance and frustration surrounding Prenton Park to equip his side with a dogged edge which should serve them well in their battle against relegation.

Ash Taylor, who spurned a glorious chance to break the deadlock soon after the re-start, produced a captain’s performance at the heart of Rovers’ rearguard but was fortunate not to concede a 66th minute penalty after tangling with Jamie Murphy on the edge of Fon Williams’ area.

“They, to begin with, were better than us,” Clough acknowledged. “We weren’t happy with a few things because they were bossing us a bit in certain areas. They were the ones on the front foot.

“But, after the break, it was much more equal. Tranmere are fighting hard as you’d expect and we stood up to that.”

Despite demanding that United finish the campaign as strongly as possible, the demands of a fixture schedule which saw his team forced into action for the 20th time since February 1 persuaded Clough to make five changes for the visit to Birkenhead.

With Doyle, Ryan Flynn and Baxter rested, Stephen McGinn was asked to anchor the visitors’ midfield while Matt Hill deputised for the injured Bob Harris at full-back.

However, the most notable addition to United’s starting eleven was the inclusion of Connor Dimaio who, after impressing at development level in recent weeks, made only the third senior appearance of his career.

Dimaio, a Republic of Ireland youth international, features among a clutch of home-grown talents Clough is convinced possess the potential required to forge successful careers at Bramall Lane and did his cause no harm at all by contributing at both ends of the pitch.

“I thought Connor did exceptionally well out there,” Clough said. “The experience he will have collected out there will be worth its weight in gold for him. He’s impressed us and now it’s up to Conor to put that to good use and continue to progress.

“To begin with, I thought we was our best midfielder out there and he showed a lot of maturity.”

However, together with the rest of his colleagues, Dimaio spent the opening period of this match attempting to keep Rovers, and the irreressible Lowe in particular, at arms length as McMahon’s players approached their work with the urgency expected of a team embroiled in a desperate battle for survival.

Indeed, it was Lowe’s persistence which presented Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro with the opportunity to test Mark Howard’s handling after 14 minutes but the Frenchman’s shot flew straight into the arms of United’s goalkeeper.

Lowe, whose performances have proved a welcome distraction to the off-the-pitch dramas which have dogged Rovers this term, continued to irritate United’s rearguard even more than Jake Cassidy’s efforts to win penalties in both the 18th and 19th minutes. Only the width of a post prevented the former MK Dons centre-forward, who has scored 27 goals in 48 outings so far this term, from dashing United’s hopes of keeping a third successive clean sheet in the league.

United, as Clough’s body language on the touchline confirmed, failed to establish a foothold in the game until the emergence of Baxter and Doyle.

Nevertheless, on those occasions when they did piece together a move, their quality within their ranks was evident.

Ben Davies, who is expected to remain with United when his loan from Derby County expires, produced an excellent sweeping cross midway through the first-half which McGinn tried to bundle home before delivering the corner which Chris Porter should have converted but instead headed wastefully high and wide.

With both Porter and McGinn withdrawn at half-time, United’s started the second period on the front foot before Rovers regain control.

Taylor glanced a header inches wide following a Max Power’s 60th minute free-kick while a drive from Cassidy moments later was fortuitiously deflected behind.

Clough appeared apoplectic with rage when referee Stephen Martin ignored Murphy’s appeals for a foul after tangling with Taylor just inside the area before Fon Williams tipped Baxter’s low drive around the foot of the post.

“We don’t want standards to slip,” Clough said. “It’s vitally important that’s the attitude we have between now and the end of the campaign. We’ve developed good habits and we want to keep them.”