TWO facts emerged from the latest triumph at Bramall Lane. A plus and, if the club's owners don’t sit up and take notice, a minus. Sheffield United are learning how to win when they are not at their best and proper investment in the January transfer window is key to the successful outcome of this campaign.
Summer seems like a distant memory as the nights draw in. So does the Blades last League One defeat, at Millwall on August 20 which left them at the foot of table.
Since then Chris Wilder’s squad have passed every test with colours ranging from flying to workmanlike. A couple of A star performances. Mostly B pluses. Saturday’s 2-1 win against an impressive looking MK Dons – a B – wasn’t United at anywhere near their recent excellence but the latest exam answered another important question. The ability to collect points when you’re misfiring. The Holy Grail which separates achievers from also-rans.
Also revealed was how important it is for Wilder to be allowed to spend wisely in the January transfer window. United’s squad when faced with intelligent opposition is not nearly as strong as an 11-match unbeaten league run suggest. Fortunately football’s third tier is not blessed with too many teams fitting the description but bearing in mind the Blades history of falling at the final hurdle the issue can’t be ignored.
Managerless MK Dons, as United’s boss had warned, proved that. They left the Lane with a sixth defeat and have only a meagre point to show from their last seven league fixtures. Given the quality of their performance, however, it was difficult to fathom their predicament. Had it not been for schoolboy defending, United may not have been able to say job done.
Floodgates were expected to open after Stefan Scougall, starting up front in place of the injured Matt Done who was posing for pictures with fans on the John Street concourse before kick-off, gave United a fifth-minute lead. Strangely, and reminiscent of times past, it didn’t happen. Instead the Blades slowed the pace allowing MK to take advantage and assert themselves for large periods of the match.
In doing so it became abundantly clear how much more comfortable the visitors were with the ball and their effective use of measured passing. United’s game relies more on pace than precision. Take that away, as for whatever reason happened on Saturday, and the contest becomes much more of a level playing field.
Judging from how quickly on a couple of occasions Wilder, using all of the skills he learned as a Bramall Lane ball boy, returned it for throw-ins to be taken, United’s now unaccustomed lack of urgency wasn’t by design.
Sheffield-born Richie Barker, MK’s acting-manager until a permanent replacement for Karl Robinson who left by mutual consent last week after six years in charge, said: “You could sum up our season in that 90 minutes. Some absolutely fantastic football, fantastic work ethic but unfortunately it’s still too easy to score goals against us. Today they were avoidable goals.
He added: “We could have gone under but we didn’t. We made a team that are arguably one of the best in the league change formation after 20 minutes.”
Wilder agreed. “It was a tough day for us, the result better than the performance. Credit to them, they’re Championship players. I didn’t take any notice of their league position. We’ve seen a team that will get themselves sorted and climb the table pretty soon.”
He added: “We had to change shape a few times so that’s credit to the opposition and shows how dangerous they were. Even though I would say that Mooro [goalkeeper Simon Moore] hasn’t had a lot to do.”
With only one enforced change, United’s bench looks light. Striker Leon Clarke’s expected return from injury will make a difference to Wilder’s options but United still need an injection of pace and quality in midfield.
Without Billy Sharp’s 21-goal contribution last season the Blades would have been in serious trouble. Performances and personnel have improved dramatically in the current campaign but there remains an over-reliance on the captain.
The 30-year-old’s match-winner against MK was his tenth of the season. With two thirds of it remaining he’s on course to challenge his best ever haul, 32 for Scunthorpe in 2006-07. Almost certainly equal the 24 he scored for the Iron the previous season after leaving the Lane. That, of course, relies on staying injury free. Worryingly, his nearest rivals in the goalscoring charts are Scougall and loanee defender Ethan Ebanks-Landell, both with three. Done, Sharp’s regular strike partner, provides energy but has just two goals from 14 league appearances.
Probably Wilder’s biggest achievement since arriving at a fractured Bramall Lane in May is to have repaired the unprecedented damage between players and fans after last season’s shambolic season under Nigel Adkins.
Acknowledging the crucial importance of almost all the 20,495 crowd’s backing (411 were from Milton Keynes), Wilder said: “They [the supporters] are giving the players the confidence to go and express themselves and give their best performances. Today when we went back to 1-1 they gave us the lift to give them the result that I think they’ll be extremely satisfied with.”
Those supporters have at last something to shout about. United are still a work in progress but the scale of the job is nothing like it was less than three months ago. There is enough evidence to suggest a return to the Championship is a serious possibility.
Wilder is keeping his half of the bargain. You would hope that owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud have a plan in place to help fill the gaps and ensure all that effort isn’t wasted.