The state of play in the League One table ensured that, from Sheffield United’s perspective at least, today’s game against Swindon Town was no ‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show.’
Eight places and nearly 20 points behind the visitors, manager Nigel Clough and his players knew this was every bit as important as last week’s titanic tussle against Spurs. Nevertheless, after a gruelling run of fixtures and a possible FA Cup tie with Manchester United up-for-grabs when Preston North End visit Bramall Lane on Tuesday evening, United made 10 changes to their starting eleven with selection of goalkeeper Iain Turner perhaps the most notable. With colleague Mark Howard nursing a slight back complaint, the former Scotland B international donned the gloves for a match which, during the first-half at least, saw Swindon huff and puff without ever breaking the United door down. They did, however, indulge in some shameful theatrics.
The inclusion of Ben Davies ensured United would benefit from having a dead-ball specialist among their number and, in the seventh minute, it nearly proved crucial when Michael Higdon, so impressive during the second-leg of a memorable double-header with Mauricio Pochettono’s men, was inches away from connecting with an inswinging free-kick.
Moments later, at the other end of the pitch, Swindon also went close with a set-piece of their own after Terry Kennedy had been harshly cautioned following Andy Williams’ triple salko and pike on the edge of the box.
Harry Toffolo beat the wall but could not find the gapo between Turner’s outstretched palm and the inside of the far post.
Kennedy recovered to prevent a looping crossfield pass from reaching Nathan Byrne soon after.
But it was referee Paul Coote - combined with the seemingly low painhold threshold of many Swindon players - who caused United most frustration during the opening quarter-of-a-hour.
United hope to bolster the attacking options at their disposal before Monday evening’s deadline for permanent signings. However, with Jason Holt becoming Clough’s fourth signing of the winter window so far, they have already been active in the transfer market. Holt, on loan from Heart of Midlothian, is expected to complete a permanent transfer to South Yorkshire at the end of the present campaign. He was joined in Clough’s squad by fellow new arrivals John Brayford, Paul Coutts and Kieron Freeman although only three featured here.
Swindon had triumphed 5-2 during September’s corresponding fixture at the County Ground and, arriving at Bramall Lane ranked first, have been in sparkling form since. Having seen Jordan Turbull join Kennedy in the referee’s notebook, they continued to probe without ever managing to drag United’s back-four out of position.
That was until, in the 19th minute, the ball fell to Harry Swift just in front of the penalty spot.
His low shot flew through a crowd odf bodies and towards United’s goal but Turner demonstrated good reactions to block. Coote, meanwhile, continued to lose the plot. Having correctly cautioned Higdon for a frustrated challenge, he awarded free-kicks that weren’t and waved play on when it should have been hauled back.
Swift should also have given Swindon a 25th minute lead but miscued badly, allowing Kennedy and Chris Basham to clear, after meeting the impressive Byrne’s centre at the far post.
Che Adams had earlier launched a menacing counter-attack but was crowded out before he could find former Ilkeston team mate Kieran Wallace on the overlap. Adams carried on regardless and, in the 29th minute, was stopped by Raphael Branco shoulder charge which brought the fouth yellow card of the game.
Swift collected the fifth soon after. But not before Nathan Thompson tried to convince Coote that Higdon deserved to collect his second of the match. He didn’t and, after a half challenge in front of the dug-outs, play carried on.
Adams was inches away from curling an angled drive home after exchanging passes with Louis Reed while Swift shaved the crossbar following a huge scramble in the box. Then, two minutes from the break and after another shameful piece of play acting, Higdon had to be withdrawn with Jamie Murphy entering the fray.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Turner, Brayford, Basham, Davies, Coutts, Higdon, Reed, Freeman, Kennedy, Adams, Wallace. Substitutes: Alcock, Doyle, Murphy, Scougall, Baxter, McNulty, Long.
SWINDON TOWN: Foderingham, Branco, N Thompson, Turnbull, Byrne, Stephens, L Thompson, Toffolo, Swift, Obika, Williams. Substitutes: Smith, Barthram, Hylton, Belford, Rodgers, Marshall.
REFEREE: D Cootes (Nottinghamshire).