Clock ticking for Sheffield United to find missing piece and complete promotion jigsaw

Sheffield United's missing piece of promotion jigsaw

ARE Sheffield United good enough to win automatic promotion? Yes. Are they resolute enough to clinch Championship football via the play-offs? Maybe.

That might appear a contradiction but life is never straightforward for Blades fans and this season, as positive as it has been, is no exception.

Even if a good number are being swept away in the euphoria of topping League One there are many more seasoned onlookers whose feet remain firmly on the ground; and for good reason. United have one structural flaw which the likes of Kieron Freeman, Mark Duffy, Ethan Ebanks-Landell and Stefan Scougall are managing manfully to hide by scoring 21 goals between them. Top scorer Billy Sharp aside, United’s frontline is letting the side down.

Former striker and media observer Keith Edwards isn’t one who views United through red and white-striped tinted spectacles. But he made a rash statement recently claiming they were probably the “finished article for League One”. The bold proclamation came, I am told, during commentary broadcast by BBC Radio Sheffield as United appeared to be heading comfortably towards their seventh successive win after having equalised at Walsall. From my vantage point at the Banks’s Stadium what happened next dispelled the theory but it needn’t have done.

Manager Chris Wilder has less than a fortnight to recruit a striker to match Sharp’s quality. It’s a tall order but if he succeeds then Edwards would indeed be right and United’s automatic promotion drive almost unstoppable. A free-scoring front line backed up, instead of relying as it does at present, on contributions from other areas.

“I think we had an off 45 minutes and got punished for it,” said Wilder who appeared to take the 4-1 defeat in his stride. It's doubtful he did in private. Wilder added: “Defeat against Walsall [in the league at Bramall Lane], and we can talk about that all day, then we went on a winning run. Defeat against Bolton [which followed in the FA Cup] and then we’ve won six games on the spin. That shows you I’m confident the players will quickly get over it.”

BACKLASH

The logic is undeniable and it will come as no surprise if Gillingham, next up at Bramall Lane, are on the receiving end of a backlash. It could be another statement of intent as United bid to extend their lead. Likewise, they could just as easily make hard work of it and there you have the underlying concern.

In the rough and tumble of league football United are formidable. They have found method, a way to win. But crucially there is also room for error and time to put it right. Viewed singularly, cup competition if you like, they remain vulnerable. Which is why taking the shortest path to the Championship rather than chancing the scenic route is so important.

On anything close to current form the bookies would make United favourites in the play-offs and given a truly miserable record in finals it would be poetic having tried so many times if they were to have their day in the sun at Wembley. But few sane Unitedites, if any, have an appetite for yet another trip to what has become a graveyard for despairing souls.

The problem is simple enough to identify. A nagging inability to reflect comprehensive team performances in scorelines.  But statistics, damned statistics enable an argument convincing enough to suggest that viewpoints similar to this represent glass half full syndrome. United are after all third top league scorers in all four divisions of English football with 51 goals at the time of writing, behind League One promotion rivals Scunthorpe {53) and League Two leaders Doncaster (52).

It’a a whinger's charter to find fault where there isn't any. A transformational team, moulded rapidly and beyond expectation by a proven manager who is a perfect fit, are now leading the way on merit. Why not just enjoy and be happy?

HOSTAGE

Two reasons. It isn’t in anyone’s interest to risk being held hostage for a seventh season of third tier football and United, entertaining and a pleasure to watch, aren't quite as good as some might suggest. On reflection even Blades devotee Edwards would surely wish to qualify his recent choice of words.

Fortunately the man who matters most is under no illusion but the clock is ticking as he tries to implement a solution. One which will significantly reduce stress levels for what is euphemistically described as the business end of the season.

Points win prizes and goals win points. Despite a seemingly free-flowing supply which confounds concern, the Blades regularly fail to take their chances, heap avoidable pressure on themselves and remain open to a sucker punch. Too many matches which should have been won long before anyone’s thinking about vacating their seat, have instead had fans sitting on the edge of them. Northampton, Bury and Shrewsbury at home for example, Coventry, Charlton and Fleetwood away. Four wins and two draws; 14 points from a possible 18 so what is there to worry about?

Fine margins, that’s the problem. As pressure intensifies, the prize appears within reach, setbacks and frustration can introduce anxiety and Blades fans of old are all too aware of what can happen when that creeps in. United cannot allow it to happen and it doesn’t need to be that way.

FINE MARGINS

It would be folly to suggest events at Walsall were in any way indicative of what may follow. A shocked Wilder admitted: “I didn’t see that coming.” Had United capitalised on their first-half chances it wouldn’t have.  Another goal and the nature of the match would have changed making it unlikely to have left the West Midlands empty handed. Fine margins.

United dominated from start to finish at Charlton but only had one goal to show for it and were forced to settle for a point in added time. An outcome which left Wilder incandescent with rage as he publicly condemned his players. Fine margins.

More recently at the Lane, United dominated against Wilder’s former club Northampton but had to wait until the 89th minute before securing three points. Fine margins. A similar story at home to nine-man Bury where the only goal finally arrived deep into added time. Two up by half time at the Lane against Shrewsbury, another team reduced to nine, the Shropshire side pulled a goal back and Blades fans, anticipating a second-half goal fest, were relieved to hear the final whistle. Fine margins.

The old chestnut of ‘parking the bus’ has been wheeled out at various intervals to conveniently explain the problem away leaving supporters nodding in agreement. But we all know that doesn’t wash, especially when the standard of the opposition is generally average at best.

No, the major flaw lies at the top end of the pitch where leading scorer and skipper 17-goal Sharp is the lone ranger as far as his fellow strikers are concerned. Matt Done (2), Leon Clarke (3), and Caolan Lavery (2) have contributed just seven goals between them in all competitions, a meagre five in the league. Marc McNulty, meanwhile, recalled from his loan to Bradford, scored once in 18 appearances for the Bantams.

Done with 28 outings is averaging a goal every 14 appearances, he has collected more than twice as many yellow cards; Clarke one in six; Lavery one in nine. For an ambitious club it isn’t acceptable. They need to step up to the plate but time is running out and only Lavery is showing any signs of promise.

It’s the reason why United haven’t put clear daylight between themselves and their challengers. The reason why it is likely to remain the case if a high calibre partner for Sharp isn’t recruited before deadline day on January 31.