FOR A team at the top of the table this should not be happening. The month of March has offered a glimpse of good, bad and downright careless. Maybe it should come as no surprise that Sheffield United’s path to promotion wouldn't be textbook.
Where the Blades are concerned nothing rarely is. What passes for thrills and spills for relatively new fans is not regarded as such by those of us more long in the tooth with suitably tormented memories to match.
It matters not a jot. Seven points from three successive away trips and an eight-point lead over second-placed Fleetwood Town. More importantly nine from distant Bolton Wanderers who sit in the first play-off position still with a match in hand. United’s latest unbeaten run now extends to eight matches. It is a great place to be with nine fixtures remaining, five of those at home.
Manager Chris Wilder summed up the mood perfectly after United continued to confound when squandering a comfortable 2-0 half time lead at Swindon on Tuesday. Fortunately the home side demonstrated why they are immersed in a relegation battle by gift-wrapping a chance for the Blades to regain the lead before running out 4-2 winners. “Our supporters are not really concerned about the tightness of the game after being in this division for six years," he said. "They’re more concerned about the result and getting another three points in (towards) where we want to go.”
No-one could argue. Yes, it would be nice to watch United purr effortlessly, Rolls-Royce-like towards the Championship. That smooth ride may still happen. But for now supporters must make-do with a noisy Maserati, full of fun, plenty of horsepower but occasionally prone to rudely backfire when you least expect it.
It happened at the County Ground in midweek. It happened at Oxford seven days earlier when despite obvious superiority they trailed at half time before securing three points in a 3-2 win. It happened at the beginning of the month at Rochdale. Racing into a 2-0 lead after a whirlwind opening 11 minutes, Wilder’s side was forced to settle for a 3-3 draw.
The stuff which gives professional football coaches sleepless nights. None of this matches Wilder’s meticulously thought out game plans. What began as well rehearsed strategies quickly turned into firefights where pre-match talk of quality, possession and self control gave way to praise for character and resilience.
Thankfully United have the latter two attributes in abundance. A work ethic which has become a priceless insurance policy insisted upon by a manager who appears to have covered every angle in his quest to deliver what four previous bosses and a caretaker have been unable to do since the Blades were relegated to League One in 2011.
Swindon is a fitting venue to demonstrate many of the ills of the recent past. Five of the squad in the midweek trip to Swindon – ex-boss Nigel Adkins ‘Wisdom of Geese’ episode – were flapping around the County Ground like immature kids the last time United won there.
Blades fans lapped it up, including ViewFromTheJohnStreet.com. Big Time Charlies is an educated guess at what Wilder may have thought from afar at Northampton. Hindsight is a wonderful weapon, but it is unlikely that Billy Sharp, Chris Basham, Kieron Freeman or Marc McNulty and George Long who were on the bench on Tuesday, would ever dare to perform such antics under the current man in charge.
A 2-0 win moved United into League One's second spot in late August of 2015. A season that was to finish with a whimper in 11th, bitter recrimination and an unprecedented disconnect between loyal fans and their club. The only wisdom remaining was a decision to reduce admission prices as an apology and the sacking of United’s eighth manager is as many years.
It was at Swindon, too where Nigel Clough’s team drew 5-5 in a chaotic play-off semi-final second leg, losing 7-6 on aggregate. United's frailities were exposed as they trailed 3-0 after only 18 minutes. They fought back in kamikaze fashion but unlike this week, and having lost the first leg at Bramall Lane preceded by the Clough ‘rally cry’ of “we can’t win it but we can lose it”, had already demonstrated a complete lack of organisation and discipline to ensure another season in the third tier.
Swindon were also the opponents, this time at Bramall Lane, where leadership at the very top, or lack of it at the time, was under the spotlight. It was Chris Morgan’s first match in charge and his second stint as caretaker immediately after the sacking of Danny Wilson in April 2013. This despite the Blades being in fifth place, six points off automatic promotion with five matches remaining. A perplexing dismissal which club co-owner Kevin McCabe has since admitted was a mistake.
Key to the amazing transformation seen this season is something that neither Clough nor Adkins demonstrated in their own very different ways – man management. Wilder, unlike his predecessors, has no favourites. He has ruthlessly set about his side twice this season – incandescent with rage following a draw at Charlton in December and again after a deeply frustrating home draw with Gillingham in January.
Noticeably, the whip has been put away and it’s now a supportive arm around the shoulder as the home straight approaches. What happened at Rochdale, for example, when, like at Charlton, three points should have been in the bag, was met with a more pragmatic appraisal. “I thought they were better than us with and without the ball and when you don’t play well you have to dig in and get something out of the game. A point is just reward for that attitude.”
All of which serves as a reminder that a serious job of work remains to be done and nothing should be taken for granted. That said 15 points are up for grabs at the Lane alone, starting with the visit of Charlton. A maximum return would put the Blades on 90. As assistant manager Alan Knill said recently “it’s ours to lose”.