YOU have heard it uttered many times – the final league table doesn’t lie.
Most observers of Sheffield United would surely agree that a tenth-placed finish on their return to the Championship after a six-year absence is about right. If we’re being honest, had Mystic Meg predicted the outcome before a ball had been kicked, the Blades faithful would have regarded it as a good season.
And they’d be right. The bald statistics, however – played 46, points 69, finished tenth – doesn’t tell the whole story. Club politics and power struggles aside it has been another remarkable season of which manager Chris Wilder, his staff and players should be proud and maybe their final resting place doesn't reflect.
It’s not true to say United have fallen short. Yes, Wilder was factually correct when he said after Sunday’s 3-2 win in the campaign’s final fixture at Bristol City that the goal of reaching the play-offs hadn’t been achieved. But, as he and everyone else knows, there is well documented good reason.
The truth is a squad of honest, hard-working players hugely outperformed to get within six points of the target. Nothing should detract from that. That they were not fully armed to complete the job is not their fault. It isn't the manager's fault either. But nevertheless all observers will know they gave it their all and you can't ask anymore than that.
Wilder wanted more and in the first quarter of the season thought he might get it as the Blades took the Championship by storm. But the self-imposed limitations handed down from on high were always going to have a telling effect.
Some individuals have enjoyed the best form of their careers and as a collective created an enduring team spirit which has carried United across some bumpy terrain.
The official Player of the Season Award went deservedly to midfield general John Fleck. It is no coincidence, however, that there were so many other contenders. Had my personal favourite, Mark Duffy, wing-back George Baldock, defenders Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham, or striker and top scorer Leon Clarke, taken the prize, no-one would have blinked.
Indeed, if there were an award for most improved player, Clarke would have won it with ease. He scored his 19th goal of the season at Ashton Gate. At the ripe old age of 33 and with 17 employers on his CV it is his best ever total.
David Brooks, Young Player of the Year, would almost certainly have been in the running for the main prize had not the 20-year-old’s promising career been severely interrupted by glandular fever.
Similarly captain Billy Sharp would surely have lifted the Player With The Best Attitude Award. Often sidelined, most notably against Sheffield Wednesday in the goalless draw at Bramall Lane, Sharp has been a model professional despite his private frustrations. Not only that, no longer regarded as a regular first choice he still weighed in with 14 goals to finish second behind Clarke.
Wing-back Enda Stevens, central defenders Richard Stearman and Jake Wright, and January midfield signing Lee Evans have all risen to the challenge. In Stevens’ case and like many of his teammates, experiencing Championship football for the first time.
It seems harsh to leave anyone of the regulars out. John Lundstrum, for example, not the most talented or creative of midfielders, has nevertheless grown into the role and won many fans over, including myself.
The gangling figure of 6ft 6in goalkeeper Jamal Blackman, loaned from Chelsea after first choice Simon Moore was injured in pre-season, caused some concern at the beginning of the campaign. But he quickly took on board adjustment to his game to become the go-to keeper making 33 appearances.
Blackman, returned to Chelsea before the match at Bristol. As did striker James Wilson to Manchester United. He made little impact since joining in January.
Wilder appeared irritated when asked about Blackman’s departure. “He went back a couple of days ago so Jamal’s not our player and he isn’t our player next year. We don’t know what the situation is with him,” he said.
The 24-year-old used Instagram to send a message to United fans, saying: “It’s been an amazing season for me with United. I’ve had ups and down but I’ve enjoyed every minute of being a Blade.
“I want to thank the staff, my teammates and massively the fans - loved being apart of this team and involved in the achievements. A great learning curve for me as a player.” Intriguingly he ended: “So much more to come from this team and me – who knows what the future holds.”
After watching United race to a 3-0 first-half lead in the West Country watched by just under 2,000 travelling Blades before running out 3-2 winners, Wilder rated the performance as “up there” with the best of the campaign.
Superbly struck goals from Clarke, Sharp and Kieron Freeman, making only his second appearance since being injured at Ipswich in October, put the Blades in firm control.
There only ever looked like one winner. That City, who like United were until recently play-off contenders, clawed back two goals in the second half, again exposed defensive frailties which have proved so costly in the second half of the season.
These are emotional times for lifelong Blades fan and ex-player Wilder who is torn between the club he loves and employers whom to date may share his ambition but for their own reasons have come nowhere near to matching it.
Wilder decided a week earlier to put on record he is prepared to leave if the prolonged and damaging battle for control of the club between Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is not settled quickly. Asked if he was any clearer about his future Wilder said tersely: “That’s for another day.”
What has never been in doubt is the commitment of the players he has assembled or the support from the stands.
“They’ve backed us up and down the country in numbers and if I’m in there with them I would enjoy watching this team,” said the manager.
“It’s not a perfect team, they make mistakes, we’ve got young players in that group that will get better through the experience.”
Of United fans who he and the team went over to at the final whistle to greet with mutual admiration, he added, voice breaking with emotion: “From my point of view, from a personal point of view, [they are] unbelievable and humbling.”