Carlisle United left Brammall Lane with a thoroughly deserved point as they battled their way to their third consecutive draw to edge themselves one step closer to safety despite being reduced to ten men with 15 minutes left to play.
“I’m delighted for the lads because they have worked hard against a very, very good side,” the manager said. “The sending off was harsh but quite a few decisions went against us today. We defended well and we created the better chances overall and we have to be happy with that. We can all be very proud of what our team has done for us today."
A switch of formation back to a more familiar 4-3-3 appeared to be doing the trick for the Cumbrians in the early stages as the hosts struggled to see any kind of meaningful possession.
An early free kick from McGovern caused problems as O'Hanlon tried to flick it on. He missed his touch but it took the defence an age to clear the loose ball.
The visitors should have taken the lead on 10 minutes when Berrett played McGovern on the overlap. His deep cross found Andy Welsh in space but the wide man couldn’t keep his header down.
McGovern's set pieces were difficult to deal with and Livesey and O'Hanlon challenged as Hill looped a flat delivery into the air. Poleon hooked it clear as Miller tried to react.
The home side finally threatened with 19 minutes on the clock when Robson sent a deep free kick to the near post. Maguire got a touch but he could only scoop it wide.
The Blades looked completely out of sorts and it was Carlisle asking all the questions as they attacked with confidence and in numbers. A poor pass from Poleon allowed Miller to race clear and he spotted Welsh who had once more pulled into space. Long needed help to clear his lines as he parried an awkwardly bouncing shot back into the mix.
A Sheffield corner midway through the first half lifted home spirits as Robson whipped it into the box. Neill Collins bullied his way through to make a connection but he sent his header over the bar from just three yards out.
Matt Hill somehow got away with misjudging a header when he jumped forward to block another testing McGovern drive. It ballooned up off his head and dropped over the bar, and the goal kick decision which followed was met by howls of laughter from the stands.
Former-Steel City man Jon-Paul McGovern twice had shots deflected wide as the Cumbrians kept the pressure on but they were made to concentrate more on defending as the half wore on when the Blades rediscovered their shooting boots.
Kevin McDonald was the chief protagonist and a mazy run signalled his arrival into the game. Livesey had to clear before Forte could make any kind of connection.
The big midfielder then produced a wonderful shot form absolutely nothing as he found the ball at his feet 25-yards from goal. Gillespie had to dive low to push it away as it angled for his bottom corner. Robson and Forte also sent weak attempts into the crowd behind goal and it was Carlisle who ended the half on top as they threw men forward in search of a breakthrough.
A cross from Welsh found the back line flat-footed and a half clearance invited Liam Noble to volley from 25-yards. He caught it well but the slightest of touches from Long took it onto the upright. Paul Thirlwell tried a snapshot from the resulting corner but Poleon made the vital block when he turned his back.
The Blades looked fired up and in a much more determined frame of mind following their half time pep-talk and they were almost in front within seconds of the restart when Maguire hooked a teaser into the area. Gillespie had to react late to block it as it sailed past Forte and Robson.
The Cumbrians kept most of what their hosts had to offer at arms length, much to the disgust of the increasingly disgruntled home crowd, and a miscued volley from Doyle at the height of the unrest summed up what was a frustrating afternoon for the automatic promotion-chasers.
And the frustration turned to comedy on 67 minutes when Ironside was played clean through by a defence-splitting pass. He lost his feet but somehow managed to get enough on the ball to put a chance on a plate for the unmarked Jonathan Forte. With the goal at his mercy he swung a wild boot and dragged the effort wide.
Carlisle came close to getting a reward for their hard work when Frank Simek took a return pass from a quick throw. His lobbed cross found O’Hanlon with time and Long was relieved to see a placed header drop just wide of the post. That was to be the big defender’s last contribution as a tussle with Ironside from the resulting goal kick brought a second yellow card and his marching orders.
The Cumbrians kept their cool and defended in packs to prevent the Blades from capitalising on their numerical advantage and Mustoe, Simek, Livesey and new arrival Peter Murphy led by example as they blocked everything that came their way.
Murphy was the man on the spot in time added on when Forte appeared to spring the trap. An outstretched leg and a toe-end on the ball was enough to stop the inevitable shot.
The loudest roar of the day greeted the full time whistle as 679 away fans (with a few more in the press box) showed their appreciation for what had been a very good all-round team performance from a team who have now lost just one of their last six outings.
Blades - McMahon (30)
United - O'Hanlon (43, 74 - sent off), Mustoe (81)
Sheffield United - Long, Maguire, Hill (Higginbotham 46), Doyle, McDonald, Kitson (Ironside 63), Collins, Forte, Robson, Poleon (Murphy 46), McMahon. Subs - Westlake, Porter, McFadzean, Coyne.
Carlisle United - Gillespie, Simek, Livesey, O'Hanlon, Mustoe, Thirlwell, Noble, Berrett, McGovern (Manset 82), Miller, Welsh (Murphy 77). Subs - Collin, Loy, Cadamarteri, Potts, Beck.
Referee - Mr Keith Hill
Attendance - 19,005 (679 away fans)