DEAN Saunders is fondly remembered at Bramall Lane having represented Sheffield United as a player but the reserves of goodwill he accumulated during that short but successful year-long stint counted for little last night.
Saunders, who won hearts and minds here in the late 90s thanks to a series of impish and enthusiastic displays, punched the air in delight after watching his Doncaster Rovers side thwart their rivals hopes of avoiding a third straight draw.
Although neither team could be satisfied with their performance, the chorus of boos which echoed around three quarters of the stadium when referee Mark Haywood brought a dour encounter to a close confirmed which of these two teams the final result suited best.
Danny Wilson, the United manager, had insisted beforehand that Rovers would not arrive intent on ‘parking the bus’.
The visitors had clearly not been instructed to apply the handbrake.
But they did not drive it headlong and full speed at United’s rearguard either.
With the compelling contest both Wilson and Saunders had predicted failing to materialise, what transpired was a match lacking the flurry of incidents usually associated with derbies.
United seized the initiative at the start of the second half.
However, although the introduction of Dave Kitson gave the hosts a much-needed physical presence in attack, they lacked the ingenuity to make it count.
This neighbourly dispute was high on industry and endeavour but moments of true quality were in desperately short supply.
Only two places and a point separated these rivals in the rankings ahead of kick-off.
But the mood music surrounding the respective camps contrasted sharply.
United, despite starting the match still unbeaten in league competition this term, had seen their credentials called into question after being held by lowly Bury, although the grumblings of discontent revealed as much about the weight of expectation Wilson’s men must shoulder as it did the result.
Rovers, who included former United players David Cotterill and James Harper in their squad, made the short journey down the M18 having won plaudits for the apparent speed of their recovery from last season’s relegation.
Nevertheless United, who recalled Richard Cresswell and Marcus Williams following spells on the bench, have also been durable propositions under Wilson’s tutelage.
They were forced to demonstrate their ability to roll with a punch when Mark Howard made a double save to deny Martin Woods and then Chris Brown after barely a minute.
Rovers, persisting with the same personnel which had beaten Colchester three days earlier, continued to forge the better openings with Brown charging down a Howard clearance and David Syers looking to exploit the space between their opponents’ defence and midfield.
United, who had earlier seen Cresswell blaze over the crossbar following Harry Maguire’s barnstorming run, appeared ragged by comparison until testing Gary Woods twice in quick succession.
Tony McMahon’s curling shot from the edge of the penalty box was destined for the top corner of the Rovers’ net until the former Manchester United prospect diverted it away to safety.
Nick Blackman thought he had turned home from close range only for the goalkeeper to intervene.
Paul Gallagher unleashed an ambitious effort from just beyond the halfway line as United gathered momentum.
However, again missing the suspended Ryan Flynn and Michael Doyle, United lacked balance and penetration.
Cresswell’s low drive was smothered at the near post just past the hour and Kitson used his frame to engineer a chance for Blackman which the youngster spurned.
UNITED: Howard 6 , Maguire 6, Hill 6, Blackman 6, McDonald 6, Collins 7, McAllister 6, Cresswell 6 (Kitson 66), Gallagher 7 (Cofie 86), McMahon 7, Williams 6. Not used: Westlake, Porter, Miller, Chapell, Long.
ROVERS: G Woods, 7 Quinn 6, Jones 6, Syers 6 (Harper 66), M Woods 7, Brown 6, Cotterill 7 (Maxted 84), Spurr 6, McCombe 7, Bennett 6 (Blake 88), Keegan 6. Not used: Husband, Martis, Hume.
Bookings: Brown (55), Jones (65), Williams (90).