TWO UNEXPECTED turns in the space of four eventful days at Bramall Lane provided the catalyst. It’s now official – the gloves are off.
Gone is the pretence that third-placed Sheffield United’s return to the Championship is all about ‘seeing where it takes us’. A well-worn phrase trotted out by manager and players alike when quizzed about remarkable form which has positioned them at the top end of the table.
Five home points dropped. Points which in the final analysis may take on renewed importance, whether that be missing out on an automatic promotion or the play-offs. The fact little more than three months into a season which began amid uncertainty for all concerned, we can even be talking this way says everything about what United have achieved.
“We all have our ideas about what we want to do and the prize that’s ahead of us,” said manager and magician-in-chief Chris Wilder after defeat against Fulham. “We’re in a position, we’re in the race and there’s no getting away from that.” He followed that with a thinly-disguised message to co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, effectively telling them ‘I’m doing my job, now the ball is in your court’.
“The period up to Christmas, you want to get yourself in a good position,” said Wilder. “We can’t deny we are in the mix. Whether we are strong enough come January and February, we’ll see.
“They’ll be a lot of activity in the division in January given the size of the prize on offer. Hopefully, at whatever level, there will be here too. For us to be in the mix we have to strengthen in January, without a shadow of a doubt.
“In terms of figures and numbers, whether it’s money we’ve made, whether it’s historic agreements, how much there is, is left totally to the owners. That’s their area of how they want to take the club forward. They know better than me.
“I’ve said we’d like to bring three or four players in and maybe two or three will go. We’ll keep the numbers the same but up the quality in certain areas. The quality of player we bring in is up to them.” He added with a dollop of irony: “I think we’re the 19th or 20th highest [budget] in the division. “The money we’ve brought in whether it’s historic sell-ons or deals we’ve done, I think we’re in a healthy position.
“That’s not chucking the owners under a bus. Kevin has put a lot of money in over the years. I’ll never criticise what they do because it costs a lot of money to run a Championship football club, any football club. It’s not a cheap hobby. It does cost money. I respect what I get.”
Club captain Billy Sharp was even more forthright about expectation within the club. “We have 36 points from our first 18 games and collecting an average of two points per fixture should be enough to win any team automatic promotion,” he wrote in his programme notes for the visit of Birmingham. “That is not me being presumptuous, just quoting stats.”
Defender Enda Stevens, pictured below, also offered an insight into what the players’ talk about amongst themselves. “You believe you can achieve something. In our dressing room, there are a lot of promotions,” he said. “That experience can be huge. Richard Stearman has gone into the Premier League, Billy [Sharp] did the same.”
Remember, as the Blades head to Millwall on Saturday it was only 15 months ago that newly appointed boss Chris Wilder was lamenting defeat at The Den which left United at the foot of League One with just a single point and three defeats to show for their endeavours. Fast forward and United now sit 46 places higher in the pyramid.
“If you've been involved with this club and you feel a lot about the club, as I do, you get very emotional about the start we've had,” said a dejected Wilder at the time. “I need to take myself out of that situation and make a more considered approach on Monday because one point out of four games is not good enough and we're all hurting.”
He’s hurting now as well, but in a good way. “How far we’ve come, I don’t want it to stop and I don’t think the players want it to stop,” said the Blades boss after United salvaged a point against lowly Birmingham City at the end of a week in which his side squandered an opportunity to put daylight between themselves and the chasing play-off pack. Instead they’ve slipped from second but still lead the challengers. “I don’t think it will stop with the way they are playing.”
A schoolboy defensive display of the type which most supporters were convinced had been consigned to history along with messrs Clough and Adkins, led to a chaotic 5-4 defeat against Fulham. A coach’s nightmare, reminiscent of the 5-5 play-off semi-final second leg debacle at Swindon in 2015. United, beaten at the Lane in the first leg, lost 7-6 on aggregate.
But just as they recovered from 3-0 down after 20 minutes at the County Ground, it was to United’s credit they came from trailing 5-2 to make a match of it against tougher oppostition. And, of course, Leon Clarke, in the form of his 32-year-old life, spearheaded that fightback. He completed a hat-trick to follow the four scored against Hull City prior to the international break and another strike at Burton Albion for good measure.
United defender Enda Stevens believes there is enough experience in the squad to win promotion.
“It was a crazy game,” said the Londoners’ Serbian manager Slavisa Jokanovic who guided them to the play-off semi-finals last season. “It is great entertainment for the supporters, it is less for us.”
“It's difficult to make sense of it,” was Wilder’s response. “To concede five at home you are not going to give yourself a fantastic chance. I was proud of the players for the way we went for it.
“I don't want my team to go out the back door. It’s happened too many times over the last few years. It's been too easy for teams to win here. Fulham earned it though I don't think they cut us open."
It was followed by an inability to see off the Blues after falling behind in the first draw of the season. That despite demonstrating a superiority which a cursory glance at the Championship table would suggest. Birmingham arrived at the Lane on Saturday night just one place above the relegation zone where they remain and until then only two points gained away from St Andrews all season. Almost needless to say, Clarke was again on target with his ninth goal in four successive matches to ensure a point for the Blades. That brought the Championship top scorer's tally to 13 from just 16 appearances.
The events of last week were all the more incomprehensible as Fulham filed out of the Mercure St Paul’s Hotel in Sheffield city centre and onto the team bus looking pensive. As well they might. Seventeenth in the table and without a win in six. Their last league victory was against QPR in September. Birmingham, meanwhile, left the West Midlands having suffered 11 Championship defeats, four of them in their last six outings.
Humility is rare in the dog-eat-dog and fragile world of football management. That’s because it’s a sign of a precious commodity, genuine self-confidence which United’s manager has in abundance. “Whether it’s me not being able to manage at this level because I’ve not done it before, whether it’s the video analysis guy not being able to do his job properly because this is the Championship or the players not being able to score goals or keep clean sheets, these are all things to dispel,” he said. “You do that by working hard.”
Despite conceding five goals against Fulham, Bramall Lane rose as one to deliver a standing ovation. Such is the bond and belief which has been created on and off the pitch. The disappointment against Brum, but not for the want of trying, elicited another positive crowd response.
“I can think of a lot more places where we could have been at this time of year than at Bramall Lane, playing against Birmingham City in front of the television cameras and 27,000 supporters,” said Wilder. “There’s not a lot wrong at this football club.”