Modern football is obsessed by science, tactics and different formations but sometimes, as Sheffield United discovered at Boundary Park, it all boils down to doing the simple things well.
Nigel Adkins’ side tried everything, including a change of shape and personnel, to force the win after Oldham Athletic were reduced to 10 men following Jonathan Burn’s sending-off only to be left ruing a careless moment at one end and, even more surprisingly, numerous missed opportunities at the other.
“The Gaffer keeps saying, he’s been saying it from day one, ‘do the basics well, do them to an exceptional level’,” Matt Done, United’s goalscorer, said.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a more true statement made because, individually and collectively, we’re more than good enough. It’s about fine tuning and small details. We’ll take care of them and then start kicking on.”
To do that United, still sixth in the table ahead of tomorrow’s meeting with Fleetwood Town, must eradicate the defensive errors which have seen them fall behind in five of their last nine outings.
Danny Philliskirk could not believe his luck after being left unmarked at a Mike Jones corner before Done, who had been tasked with the responsibility of shadowing the former United centre-forward, claimed his third goal in four games.
Done’s finish was clinical but, from that moment on, United’s became chaotic, with Billy Sharp and Stefan Scougall among those guilty of spurning chances during the second half.
“We’ve worked and talked about it all week; the fact that clean sheets will get us promoted because we will score goals,” Done said. “I’ll hold my hands up because they scored from a corner and I should have done better there but I tried to put things right at the other end.”
“The expectation, from our perspective, was to come here, do the job and win.
“It’s there, we know that and we expect it of ourselves. In the second half, we’ve created four or five great chances - not half-chances, absolute clear-cut ones - and we didn’t dispatch them out there. It’s frustrating that we didn’t take more from the game.”
Representing United can also be an emotionally demanding experience with every false step, as Adkins viewed this result, exposing his squad to forensic scrutiny and, as happened here, a torrent of abuse from one particularly disgruntled fan.
It can be a chastening one too. Four points behind second-placed Walsall with 99 more up for grabs, United remain on course to achieve Adkins’ objective of “being in the mix” come January when Fulham’s Dan Burn and Leicester City’s Dean Hammond are among those expected to arrive at Bramall Lane.
Nevertheless, the mood in the visitors’ dressing room afterwards was one of disappointment, albeit tinged, Done revealed, with defiance.
“Everyone is big enough to hold their hands up when they’ve not done their job,” he said. “It’s a man’s game after all. Sharpy has come straight in afterwards and apologised for missing his chance.
“If there’s anyone in this division, let alone the team, that you wanted to be on the end of that it was Billy. But the fact he’s come in and held his hands up as well showed b***s and the characters we’ve got in that dressing room.
“Nobody would have had a go at him anyway because he’s done brilliant all season and will going forward. But it shows the heart and attitude he’s got. It also shows the togetherness that we’ve got”
United, restoring Kieran Wallace and Harrison McGahey to the starting 11, had earlier threatened to seize control of the opening exchanges as the pace of Done, Sharp and Che Adams caused Oldham problems.
Jose Baxter, signed from the hosts two years ago, released Done with a perfectly-weighted pass but the forward’s shot was blocked moments after Kieran Wallace, making inroads down the flank, had also come within a whisker of picking him out.
Philliskirk halted United’s progress when he turned home from close range before Done swept home after pausing to assess his options following Scougall’s assist.
Mark Howard thwarted Dominic Poleon during the closing stages of the first half and, during the second, Neill Collins and Done, dragging an angled shot agonisingly wide, both went close.
An absorbing contest took another twist when Burn received his second caution for a crude challenge on Sharp but United could not make their numerical advantage pay. with Scougall hitting the woodwork - “You’ve got to score that,” Adkins lamented afterwards - and Adams seeing a long-range effort parried to safety by David Cornell in added time.
“Credit to them, it’s a hard place to come and it always has been over the years,” Done said.
“They are a good bunch and when they went down to 10 men a few were out on their feet. I’ve played in a few feisty ones here through my career.”
Oldham Athletic: Cornell 6, Wilson 6, Kelly 6, Jones 7 (Dieng 66, 6), Poleon 6 (Fuller 66, 6), Philliskirk 6, Winchester 7, Burn 6, Fulton 6 (Wilson 82), Lafferty 6, Dummigan 6. Not used: Coleman, Croft, Yeates, Eckersley.
Sheffield United: Howard 6, Freeman 7, McGahey 7, Collins 7, K Wallace 6, Basham 6, Baxter 7, Scougall 6 (Campbell-Ryce 82), Adams 6, Sharp 6, Done 7 (Sammon 62, 6). Not used: Long, Kennedy, Reed, Coutts, Woolford.
Referee: Kevin Wright (Cambridgshire).
Attendance: 5,743 (2,111).