Sheffield United missed the chance to go four points clear at the top of League One as they drew 2-2 at home to Gillingham.
Billy Sharp opened the scoring for the Blades in the first-half, but a second-half double from Josh Wright turned the game on its head. Kieron Freeman drew Sheffield back level just after the hour mark, but the heroics of Gillingham goalkeeper Stuart Nelson meant the Blades had to settle for a point.
Chris Wilder opted for the same starting XI that started the 4-1 defeat at Walsall last weekend, which was only United’s second league defeat since August. Gillingham made three changes to the side that lost 1-0 at Oldham in Ady Pennock’s first game in charge as the former Forest Green Rovers manager searched for the winning formula after replacing Justin Edinburgh earlier this month.
The early signs were last weekend’s heavy defeat at Walsall was just a blip as Sheffield started confidently; controlling the play against Gillingham, who arrived at Bramall Lane having lost three successive games. Despite controlling the possession, Sheffield were unable to create a clear-cut chance in the opening 10 minutes of the match. The closet they came was when Stuart Nelson was forced into a good save after good work from Matt Done, who was unaware he was offside.
Visiting goalkeeper Nelson was kept busy throughout the match and he made a good save to deny John Fleck’s deflected shot from outside the box early on. Fleck then turned provider with a cross from the right but Billy Sharp headed over. Gillingham were short on clear-cut chances in the first-half and Elliott List’s shot from outside the area was the closest the visitors came to Simon Moore’s goal, despite going wide of the post.
At the other end of the pitch, the Blades continued to assert their dominance on the match as Caolan Lavery saw his shot hit the side netting. It wasn’t long before the Blades did break the deadlock. A brilliant through ball from Lavery found Sharp just inside the box and the top-scorer in League One fired the ball into the bottom left corner to score his 18th goal of the season.
The United striker had chances to extend the hosts’ lead; twice trying his luck with shots from inside the box, but the Gillingham goalkeeper was equal to them. First, Sharp tried to cleverly steer the ball into the bottom right-hand corner, but Nelson was at full stretch to save the shot. Sharp then forced Nelson into another save, minutes, later as the Gills goalkeeper pushed his shot around the post.
Sheffield came to rue these missed opportunities as, just over five minutes into the second-half, Gillingham drew back level. Josh Wright picked up the ball inside the box, evaded Chris Basham’s challenge, before slotting past Simon Moore.
The Blades looked for a quick response and their captain looked to have provided one when Sharp stopped low to head Kieron Freeman’s cross past Nelson. The celebrations inside Bramall Lane were soon silenced after the linesman raised his flag for offside. Jack O’Connell then went close for the Blades, but his header from Mark Duffy’s free-kick went wide of the post.
In an incredible turnaround, the Blades, having looked comfortable and in complete control in the first-half, found themselves trailing when Josh Wright prodded home after Ryan Jackson’s long-throw wasn’t cleared. The Blades had the ball in the back of the net within a minute of the restart, but Sharp was once again ruled out for offside.
Having twice been denied by the linesman’s flag, Sheffield drew back level just a few minutes later and this time there was no offside flag to deny the Blades an equaliser. Nelson made a brilliant stop to deny Caolan Lavery with his right arm at full stretch, but Freeman was the quickest to react and fired home the loose ball into the roof of the net.
United pressed for a winner until the end, but Nelson continued to thwart the hosts. Caolan Lavery could only head the ball into the side netting from Freeman’s cross, before Chris Wilder introduced Marc McNulty to try and find a winner for his side. The substitution nearly prevailed, but McNulty was denied by the stretched left leg of Nelson. McNulty was denied again by Nelson as the goalkeeper pushed his shot around the post, before Nelson pulled off a point-blank save from the subsequent corner.
For all their chances, the Blades were unable to find a way past an inspired Stuart Nelson and had to settle for a point. There was a few gasps from inside Bramall Lane when Gillingham’s Bradley Dack’s volley flew towards goal, but it also flew past the post.