SHEFFIELD UNITED will arrive at Hillsborough next March hopefully looking for a promotion bounce. Yes, the fixtures are out and with them suspicion the upcoming season presents a much tougher challenge than 2017-18.
Not least from the noisy neighbours who surely can’t be as bad this time around. It wasn’t a secret but in no-man’s land between the end of the season and the day when the new Championship programme is revealed the daily life of most Blades fans is a good deal less stressful.
It’s a time to dream, especially in the wake of the kind of return to football’s second tier after six years in the wilderness few could have expected.
United entered 2017-18 an unknown quantity. No-one was sure what was to expect from a squad packed to the rafters with lower league players. Even manager Chris Wilder, although confident in their abilities, expressed concerns.
As it turned out the manager was spot on. United were more than good enough to hold their own. They even twice topped the Championship table. But as Wilder had warned his bosses last summer to no avail, the quality to go that extra mile wasn’t there.
The Blades finished tenth, a position which masks the fact they were in with a realistic play-off shout almost until the end. In the final analysis they fell six points short.
An end-of-season showdown between Wilder and warring club owners Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Kevin McCabe, in which the manager threatened to quit, has apparently gone a good way for the time being to resolving several issues, including budget and recruitment.
But even accounting for better quality players being added to the squad, with the benefit of hindsight last season does look like a lost opportunity with the manager’s hands tied behind his back.
Only time will tell of course but with addition of Stoke City, West Brom and Swansea coming down from the top flight, the loss of no-hopers Sunderland and the limited Burton Albion replaced by Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers along with another strong challenge from the likes of Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Derby County and possibly Leeds United, it seems the Blades may have to improve just to stand still.
Wilder said: "It's been a good summer so far. I've been away, caught a bit of sun, been to the cricket, played some golf and done a little bit of work too! Everyone needs that downtime, the supporters need it too, but one thing that is always consistent is that we're looking forward to another campaign and hopefully another successful one.
"I think it's going to be a little bit of a slow burner for us. We all want things to be done pretty quickly but we have to make sure we get it right."
The coming season kicks-off in six short weeks, a 5.30pm televised visit on Saturday, August 4 against Swansea City, just relegated after seven years in the Premier League. The first Steel City derby is scheduled for Bramall Lane on Saturday, November 8 and the return on March 2.
September and October represent a chance to make early headway with six home matches starting with Villa. United fans can enjoy a bumper Christmas with Frank Lampard’s Derby County due at the Lane on Boxing Day followed by a visit by Blackburn and a trip to Wigan on New Year’s Day.
Nottingham Forest are the visitors on Good Friday. Easter Monday sees the Blades take on former boss Nigel Adkins and Hull City at the KCOM Stadium.
Adkins, still reviled by United fans after his shambolic season in charge three years ago, must run the gauntlet at Bramall Lane twice. An early August Carabao Cup first round visit which came out of the hat during last week’s draw in all of places Vietnam, and a league encounter in October.
There are also South Yorkshire derbies against Rotherham United who landed an instant return to the Championship by beating Shrewsbury 2-1 in the League One play-off final at Wembley.
In goal for the Shrews was Manchester United loanee Dean Henderson who has just joined the Blades in a season-long loan. United fans will head for the New York Stadium on November 29. The Millers are due at the Lane on March 9.
United finish the season at Stoke on May 5. The Potters are a favourite to return to the top flight at the first time of asking and it’s a match which has potential to have much riding on it for both clubs.
Wilder added: "Our recruitment might be a little bit different to the last three or four windows if I'm being honest. We said at the end of the last season that we now need to add that extra quality to the group, we're looking for small numbers to come through the door, to make us better.
"We've analysed the stats subjectively and objectively and we've made a conscience decision. We get the ball between A and B pretty well, now we have to improve when it comes to those big moments."
4: Swansea (h), 11: QPR (a), 18: Norwich (h), 21: Middlesbrough (a), 25: Bolton (a)
*CARABAO CUP 1st rnd – 13: Hull City (h) TBC
1: Aston Villa (h), 15: Bristol City (a), 19: Birmingham (h), 22: Preston (h), 29: Millwall (a).
3: Blackburn (a), 6: Hull (h), 20: Derby (a), 23: Stoke (h), 27: Wigan (h)
3: Nottm F (a), 10: Sheffield Wed (h), 24: Rotherham (a), 27: Brentford (a)
1: Leeds (h), 8: Reading (a), 15: West Brom (h), 22: Ipswich (a), 26: Derby (h), 29: Blackburn (h)
1: Wigan (a), 12: QPR (h), 19: Swansea (a), 26: Norwich (a)
2: Bolton (h), 9: Aston Villa (a), 13: Middlesbrough (h), 16: Reading (h), 23: West Brom (a)
2: Sheffield Wed (a), 9: Rotherham (h), 12: Brentford (h), 16: Leeds (a), 30: Bristol City (h)
6: Preston (a), 10: Birmingham (a), 13: Millwall (h), 19: Nottm F (h), 22: Hull (a), 27: Ipswich (h)
5: Stoke (a)