SWINDON Town ground out a gritty point with League One’s new leaders on a physical night at the County Ground.
Sheffield United came to Wiltshire boasting an unbeaten record and the Blades used all their bulk and muscle to protect it.
In contrast, Swindon had amongst their ranks a 17-year-old in Louis Thompson, an 18-year-old in Miles Storey and a group of players known more for their footballing brains than their brawn.
And in a fairly unattractive contest they manipulated their skills to their advantage and, missing six key players to injury, fought hard to earn what could become a crucial point.
Matt Ritchie hit the crossbar and Gary Roberts a post on an evening where real incident was scarce, while Nathan Thompson and Jay McEveley saved the Robins with two goalline blocks at the death.
Swindon started with a swagger and almost went in front within three minutes.
Ritchie collected a bobbling ball midway inside the Sheffield United half, neatly taking possession on his chest and volleying from 25 yards.
Blades goalkeeper George Long was beaten by the dipping effort, but it didn’t dip enough and bounced off the top of the crossbar and out for a goal-kick.
The visitors quickly went down the other end and enjoyed their first sight of goal through Chris Porter, but the striker could only head tamely at Wes Foderingham.
Town’s tempo in the early exchanges was so much more intense than the lackadaisical approach they took against Macclesfield in the FA Cup on Saturday, and they went close again in the 10th minute when Ritchie’s headed centre was nodded just wide of the near post by James Collins.
Ritchie seemed to be at the heart of everything the Robins did well in the first quarter of the game.
After 22 minutes he regained possession neatly inside the area but skewed his left-footed effort well wide of Long’s goal, while his cross from the right five minutes later ended with Simon Ferry heading gently at the Blades’ keeper.
Sheffield United were struggling to find any sort of rhythm. Though they tried to bully and manhandle the Swindon strikers, they could not cope with the trickery of Ritchie and Roberts.
The latter waltzed through a three challenges and a gap seemingly half his size to tee up Ferry in the 28th minute, and the Town captain matched the run with a shot of high class, with only the long, outstretched arm of Long preventing Swindon from nudging in front.
Ritchie had another pop at goal which was never likely to trouble long five minutes before the break and it took until the 41st minute for a Sheffield United side who failed to impress in the first half to test Foderingham.
In any case, Blackman’s curling effort from 20 yards was claimed with ease by the Town keeper.
With the visitors unable to impose themselves on proceedings, Swindon had one final chance to take a lead into half-time. However, Joe Devera could only head Ritchie’s cross wide of Long’s right-hand post and the two teams went into the break level.
Neither side seemed comfortable in the first 10 minutes after the interval, and it took Roberts striking the woodwork to finally spark the game back into life.
Williams guided the ball neatly into the winger’s path and Roberts composed himself before drilling at shot goalwards, which deflected off the legs of the diving Maguire and ricocheted back off the post.
Taking note of the warning shot, the Blades finally started to look threatening.
Ryan Flynn nodded Tony McMahon’s free-kick wide before turning provider to cross for Matt Hill, who couldn’t hit the target from eight yards out.
Swindon weren’t about to sit back and allow themselves to soak up pressure, however, and at the other end Devera’s header looped across goal without another red shirt making a killer connection.
Louis Thompson, who in starting alongside brother Nathan became one half of the first pair of siblings to start a game for Town since Alf and Bills Stephens in 1947, was the architect of the Robins’ next good chance on 70 minutes.
The midfielder dinked a brilliant cross into the area from the left and Collins rose well only to nod wide.
It was a rare moment of quality in a pretty underwhelming second half, but there was still a riveting conclusion for the 8,500 fans inside the County Ground.
In the final minute of normal time both Neill Collins and Maguire saw goalbound shots blocked on the line by a combination of McEveley and Nathan Thompson.
The last-ditch, committed blocks summed up Swindon’s performance. Rugged, if not handsome.
Paolo Di Canio was pleased with the Robins' performance and suggested his team were the better side on the night.
“We deserved to win, we dominated in the first half and the lads did very well. If we work hard like this we can do well in the future,” he said.
“Louis Thompson played his first game at this level and he did well, and the point is okay because we played against a side who will fight to win this league.
“They are big and physical and play the ball straight.
“We deserved to win, but the two blocks at the end proved that if you are focused you can do this.
“Maybe on Saturday they were not very.
“During the game for 45 minutes we played football, and I am very happy because we are in difficulty.
“They remain the unbeaten team in the league, but we are six points from them.
“But this will be hard for us to keep because we play against a lot of teams in a short period who are all up there.
“We never give up and do our best to stay there, but it unrealistic at the moment.”
Meanwhile, the Swindon boss spoke of his pleasure at finally being able to operate in the transfer market after the embargo hanging over the club was lifted yesterday.
“It is better now than a few hours ago, but it doesn’t mean tomorrow the plan changes because we still need to bring players in,” he said.
“I can focus my attention now and look at our next opponents (Walsall), who lost 4-1.
“I can now bring a challenge into the dressing room and the extra quality to help people improve.
“I can smile now. I am happy and I want to analyse the game tonight, but we will work to try and bring in some players.”
Meanwhile, Di Canio revealed after the game that Tommy Miller is set for up to six weeks on the sidelines with leg injury.