Since Sheffield United’s relegation to League One in the 2010/2011 season, The Blades have found it a challenge to get back to where the club feels they belong.
When the club reached the Play-Off final having come third in the league in their first season in League One, it looked as though they may make an immediate return, but it wasn’t to be as they lost to Huddersfield on penalties. Since that dark day at Wembley, United have come close on a number of occasions, reaching the Play-Offs twice. The 2014/15 season included a sensational semi-final encounter with Swindon Town, which finished 7-6 to Swindon, on aggregate.
Six seasons in, though, and it looks as if this campaign may be one to remember for Sheffield United. In years gone by they have been admittedly inferior to the teams who have gone on to gain promotion, but this time they are the real front runners. With just eleven games left they are eight points clear of the dreaded play-offs – a satisfying yet vulnerable position to be in going into crunch time of the campaign.
The appointment of boyhood fan Chris Wilder, after his promotion season with Northampton, has been an inspired one. The noticeable, and in essence, key part of The Blades’ summer transfer window, came when Wilder brought in a number of proven League One quality players. Boosted by the sales of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Che Adams, which freed up the wage budget, The Blades boss was able to bring in players on loan, as well as a number of new faces on free transfers.
Mark Duffy – instrumental in Burton’s promotion last season – has been a terrific addition. The midfielder has six goals to his name so far. John Fleck and Jay O’Shea have also bolstered the club’s midfield options. John Fleck has secured the midfield, and on the topic of security, The Blades’ leaky defence has been fixed this season. Conceding goals has been their downfall in previous campaigns, but the acquisitions of Daniel Lafferty, Jack O’Connell, Jake Wright and Ethan Ebanks-Landell, have tightened things up in the defensive department.
The Blades have lost just six games all season. The foundations that saw Northampton promoted last season have been replicated at Sheffield United, and it is clear Wilder has made them tough to beat. The additions of players such as Duffy, O’Shea and James Hanson, has allowed Sheffield United’s talisman Billy Sharp to flourish. The striker has 24 goals this season, and there is still eleven games to play – a quite remarkable return from the front man.
Teams who go all the way have always had a goal scorer, and there were no question marks over Billy Sharp’s ability when he re-joined the club he loves. Look no further than teams to have been promoted from League One in the past couple years; Wigan’s Will Grigg, Preston’s Joe Garner, Barnsley’s Sam Winnall. Sharp is up there with those. He is in that bracket, and he, more than anyone, will want to see Championship football return to Bramall Lane. If he can carry continue in his rich vein of form, he will be the architect of doing so.
Although it would be surprising for Sheffield United to be a League One outfit next season, they do face a different challenge going into the end of the campaign. The club, and the players in the squad who have been their for the last few seasons have often been chasing the pack at this stage, knowing in the back of their minds they will most likely have to settle for the play-offs. This time round, The Blades face a different finale. They are the front runners. How they cope with that added pressure and expectancy will ultimately decide their fate. They have enough match winners and experience in the squad, not to make a meal of the situation. The manager knows what it took to see Northampton over the line and he will want to replicate those celebrations at Sheffield United, come May.