Notts County fought back to earn a point in a feisty affair at Bramall Lane this afternoon. Sheffield United had taken the lead early into the second half, only for Lee Hughes to salvage a share of the spoils.
The Blades dominated most of the first half and Bartosz Bialkowski was forced to make three top saves to keep them at bay. The stopper frustrated Ryan Flynn early on, before keeping out strong efforts from Paul Gallagher and Nick Blackman.
Notts were by no means pinned back and came close through the likes of Francois Zoko, Alan Judge and Jeff Hughes, though none were able to break the deadlock. Spectators had to wait until after half time for an opener.
United were the team to move in front, when menacing frontman Dave Kitson found the top corner with a well-placed header. However, in the 76th minute, Notts levelled through Lee Hughes, who came off the bench to find the net at close range.
The result made it seven games without defeat for the Magpies, who gave everything they had against a Blades outfit that are unbeaten so far this term. The point also kept Magpies within three points of first-placed Tranmere Rovers.
Keith Curle made one change to the starting line-up that faced Portsmouth seven days prior, with Jamal Campbell-Ryce replacing Joss Labadie. Campbell-Ryce took up the wide-right berth of an attacking 4-3-3 formation, allowing Jeff Hughes to continue in a central midfield role that he carried out to great success in the second half of the Pompey clash.
Notts, in their pink, white and black attire, found themselves under pressure in the opening stages, as the Blades pressed high up the pitch. During the first minute, Ryan Flynn made good use of the right wing but, following the wideman’s initial blocked effort, home skipper Michael Doyle fired well over.
United threatened again in the ninth minute, when Flynn, this time on the left flank, latched onto Kitson’s flick-on. The winger ran at Julian Kelly and drove through a crowd of players, only to be denied by Bialkowski, who made a reaction save, low to his left.
The County number one had to be at his best again three minutes later, after Kitson dispossessed Gary Liddle in a dangerous area. With the Notts backline stretched, Gallagher was played into the area but Bialkowski shot off his line to produce a fine block.
After standing up to the Blades’ early onslaughts, the Magpies began to see more of the ball and, on 16, Campbell-Ryce helped to carve out his side’s first opportunity by showing great strength to retain possession in the right channel. This allowed Yoann Arquin to pick out Francois Zoko, whose low effort was eventually scrambled away from danger.
Maintaining the territorial advantage, Arquin then picked out Jeff Hughes’ run into the box with an inch perfect centre from the left wing. Hughes glanced towards the bottom-right corner and was unfortunate to find the wrong side of the post.
At the other end, Blackman cleared the bar with a long-range hit. Harry Maguire also headed over at the back post, when he connected Doyle’s lofted free-kick.
In the 29th minute, the impressive away following anticipated an opener, when Campbell-Ryce raced down the right to put in a teasing cross. The delivery found Judge but the attacking midfielder was unable to get the ball out of his feet and the hosts escaped.
As the chances continued to flow at both ends, Carl Regan drilled narrowly wide of the bottom-left corner, before, in quick response, former Magpies’ loanee Kevin McDonald teed up Blackman on the edge of the box. Blackman’s curled effort looked destined to dip under the crossbar but Bialkowski turned over with an acrobatic stop.
As the match edged towards the interval, Gallagher fired over from the edge of the area. Arquin then forced a save out of United goalkeeper Mark Howard with a finesse shot from 25 yards.
The hosts came closest to entering the half time break in front, after Liddle produced a brave block on Gallagher’s grounded drive. Although the sting was taken out of the effort, Neal Bishop was required to stick out a leg and he was relieved to see the ball loop onto the roof of the net.
The Blades did manage to move in front six minutes into the second period, though they did show signs that a goal was on its way. Blackman rifled against the frame of the goal and then, after his diagonal run was met by a wonderful, overhead pass, he had a neat finish smartly saved by Bialkowski.
As Notts struggled to clear, Kitson was able to complete the job. The former Stoke hotshot met a cross from the right wing with a stern header into the top-right corner, leaving Bialkowski with no chance.
The Magpies needed a response and they almost got it within a matter of two minutes. Campbell-Ryce provided another dangerous cross and Jeff Hughes’ forced a remarkable parry out of Howard.
In an attempt to get back onto level terms, Lee Hughes was introduced at the expense of Zoko. An injury to Kelly also saw the right-back replaced by Labadie.
This led to a switch around, with Regan moving to right-back and Jeff Hughes dropping to left-back. Labadie lined up in the centre of midfield.
On 69, Blackman nearly doubled United’s lead, when he danced around the County defenders before placing wide of the bottom-right corner. He later made space for himself from the byline to force Bialkowski into a save inside the near post.
Failure to take the chances proved costly, when Lee Hughes equalised with 14 minutes remaining. A mishit clearance from Judge’s near-post corner was headed against the bar by Labadie, which allowed Jeff Hughes to fire across goal towards Lee Hughes, who prodded home at close-range.
The home fans were next to celebrate, when, on 84, Maguire’s downward header from Gallagher’s free-kick found the net. However, the County supporters’ cheers soon drowned out those of the home faithful, thanks to an offside flag.
During five minutes of added time, Maguire fired wide, Flynn struck over from range and substitute John Cofie headed over, leaving the home crowd agitated as they departed the stadium. Notts were the happier with the point and head into two tough home games against Stevenage and Tranmere.