Notts County put in a dogged and determined display to earn a deserved point against Sheffield United at Meadow Lane on Saturday, despite playing much of the game with only ten men.
Having beaten the winter weather to get this game on as planned, Notts were looking to reward the efforts of fans and staff alike with a solid display against high-flying Sheffield United.
However, the game got off to a disastrous start for Notts, after conceding a corner in the opening exchanges and seeing Harry Maguire rise to meet a good delivery by Nick Blackman to head the visitors in front in just the second minute.
Having established the early advantage, Sheffield United were relentless in looking to pile on the pressure and build on their lead, winning another corner a minute later that Blackman again delivered and Maguire connected with once more, this time denied by Bartosz Bialkowski in the Notts goal.
Keith Curle had sent his side out in a new-look 3-4-1-2 formation, with a back three of Alan Sheehan, Dean Leacock and Gary Liddle, behind Andre Boucaud and Neal Bishop, with Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Jeff Hughes on the flanks and Alan Judge
sitting in behind a front two of Yoann Arquin and Francois Zoko.
It may have been the adjustment in shape that had allowed the Blades to catch Notts so early and the home side had to regroup quickly to establish some sort of foothold in the game in a bid to stem the flow of United attacks.
Notts were given a chance to get back into the game on eight minutes, when Danny Higginbotham fouled Arquin 10 yards inside the United half. Leacock connected with the set piece, which was delivered forward well by Sheehan, but he couldn’t get enough venom in his header to trouble George Long in the away goal.
Persistence from Jeff Hughes in the 11th minute to twice charge down attempted clearances from Maguire allowed him through on the edge of the area but as he shaped to place his shot goalwards he couldn’t quite compose himself enough and the effort drifted over.
A more settled spell of play followed, with Notts knocking the ball around well without carving out too many chances and the visitors happy to be patient in waiting for another opportunity to extend their advantage.
Arquin was the catalyst for a move on the quarter hour mark with a good cross in from the left. Hughes rose to meet it but the defender got his head to the ball first and put it behind for a corner that Sheehan drilled across goal inviting a Notts player to apply the finishing touch that nobody was able to.
Further efforts from Bishop and Campbell-Ryce midway through the half gave the home side hope of getting back into the game, with the captain’s goal-bound effort cleared by a last ditch header and Campbell-Ryce’s looping effort just over the bar.
However, Notts’ task was made all the more difficult on 25 minutes, when a break down the right by Sheffield United saw Zoko adjudged to have fouled his opponent. Then, when he looked to be being booked for the challenge, the Notts player was sent off by referee Mark Haywood apparently for something he said to the match official.
Things were only ever going to get harder for Notts after the sending off and whilst the workrate continued and the home side’s determination only seemed to rise, there were signs of frustration, especially when Sheehan unleashed an effort from range on 34 minutes, although it wasn’t far from nestling in the top corner.
Dave Kitson was then inches away from extending the lead for the Blades two minutes later, when he managed to get an outstretched foot to a defensive header across the area by Leacock, but luckily for the home side it rolled just wide of the upright.
Both sides had half chances in the final 10 minutes of the game, but neither goalkeeper was particularly troubled and after two minutes of stoppage time it was Sheffield United that headed into the dressing room much the happier of the two sides.
Half Time: Notts County 0 Sheffield United 1
Buoyed by their one-goal and one-man advantage, Sheffield United came out the brighter of the two sides in the second half, with the first real chance coming three minutes after the break when former Notts player Kevin McDonald played a nice one-two with Kitson inside the area before being denied by the diving block of Bialkowski at his feet when trying to get his shot away.
The Blades continued to press and had Notts pinned back in their own half for most of the opening five minutes of the second period, but again the home side rallied and began to come back into the game.
Kitson became the first United player to be booked by the referee on the hour mark for a foul on Hughes midway inside the Blades’ half, presenting Notts with a free kick that Judge delivered well and the visitors had to force behind for a corner, which would come to nothing.
Having been spoken to a couple of times already by referee Haywood prior to his booking, Kitson was replaced shortly afterwards, with Joe Ironside coming on for the visitors.
Notts then had the next opportunity in the game, with an Arquin header from a Judge cross deflected behind for a corner that Sheehan took, it was cleared to Liddle on the edge of the area, who played back to Sheehan and his ball in was met by Hughes, but he couldn’t get his header on target.
The second half was turning into a pretty evenly-contested affair, despite the visitors having the extra man, although it took a good clearing header by Liddle on 68 minutes to deny substitute Ironside at the post after a good ball in.
Notts refused to lie down in a game that they clearly felt they could get something from, with a lovely lay-off by Hughes outside to Judge, who put in a menacing cross that Long did well to pluck out of the air ahead of the arriving Arquin quarter of an hour from time.
The home side’s persistence would eventually be rewarded in the 80th minute, when Sheffield United conceded a free-kick just outside their own area and Sheehan delivered the perfect ball into the area where Judge connected brilliantly with his head to guide it into the bottom corner and draw Notts level.
United, perhaps realising that they should have been controlling the game much better than they had with the extra man, then looked to step up the tempo in the final minutes, but Notts were more than a match for anything they could throw at them.
Hamza Bencherif was introduced to the action in the 89th minute, replacing Arquin up front in a role that he had been tested in during training this week and he found his stint extended by four minutes of injury time added on by the referee.
However, neither team were able to find the crucial breakthrough in the closing stages, despite a brief spell of late pressure by the visitors, and the final whistle brought only a share of the spoils for both sides.
Full Time: Notts County 1 Sheffield United 1