IF Sheffield United have been playing under the radar as midfield man Marvin Johnson suggested after a landmark 1-0 win at West Brom, they are certainly on it now.
Having added game management to their armoury against arguably the Championship’s best equipped team and in their own backyard, the jigsaw is as complete as it is ever going to be.
Since throwing away a three-goal lead and the chance of topping the table to settle for a point at Aston Villa three weeks earlier, the Blades have demonstrated a steely character, taking nine points, including the scalps of two promotion rivals, extended an unbeaten run to six matches, scored six and not conceded.
Twelve fixtures remain and United are in second place on goal difference from Leeds United who they visit shortly. There is plenty of football to play and many twists and turns ahead. But abundantly clear is that from the current platform Premier League football is well within grasp for Chris Wilder’s team. Whether that be automatically or via the play-offs.
Twelve matches, six at home, six away. Thirty-six points at stake. The points average for second place over the last 24 years is 87 which under normal circumstances would means United, currently on 64 points, have the luxury of dropping 12.
But as Blades boss Wilder often mentions, there are no standout teams this season. The top of the table is tight with only six points dividing leaders Norwich City (66) from fourth-placed West Brom (60). It’s looking like the odd point or two will make the difference and consistency between now and the first week of May is key. Another area where United score highly.
Nobody boasts a better record over the last ten Championship matches. United have taken 23 points, as have Bristol City, but the Blades have scored more and conceded less. Over the same period at home they are second only to leaders Norwich. Away, the Blades are the sixth best ranking team. Keeping those stats intact is not going to be easy. Three-quarters of their remaining fixtures are against teams in the top half of the performance table.
So many points this season have slipped from United’s grasp despite dominating the opposition. How many times have we heard Wilder lament that results haven’t matches performances.
A hard lesson was learnt at Villa. The manager opted not to publicly condemn his players, as he has on such occasions in the past. But you can safely bet the air turned four shades of blue behind closed doors at their Shirecliffe training complex.
What’s not in doubt, however, is that United have emerged better and stronger from the whole experience. Wilder was unhappy at many aspects of the display at The Hawthorns, almost sounding downbeat and pointing to needless errors, such as giving away possession cheaply.
“We'll only know at the end of the season how vital that win is,” he said, adding: “I don't think it was our greatest performance to be totally honest and there's plenty we'll be working on during the week ahead. But the character and commitment and general togetherness of the team has seen us win a tight game against some good players."
The manager’s low key reaction was just more evidence of what a game-changer this result could prove to be. In the past such a result would have been met with a wide grin and the enthusiasm of a man anticipating cracking open a few Peronis. Not this time. While inwardly delighted, Wilder’s demeanour was that of a man who wants more and knows he has to get it if he and the team are to reach the promised land.
No-one doubts United’s effectiveness going forward, it is their ability to defend what they’ve got which has been the big stumbling block.
Yes, the stellar signing up front has never materialised. Maybe substitute Gary Madine demonstrated that when presented with a golden chance to put the Blades two goals up, he fired a tame shot straight at Baggies goalkeeper Sam Johnstone much to the frustration of Billy Sharp, unmarked just inside the box.
Should skipper Sharp, the Championship’s second top scorer with 22, suffer injury it would represent a huge blow such is the reliance on him. Madine, on loan from Cardiff City, ended his year-long wait to score with a brace in the 4-0 win against Reading a week earlier, but that is little guide. United are unlikely to face such a haphazard defence in the coming weeks and chances have to be tucked away when presented.
Goals still flow, however – only Norwich and West Brom have scored more – and as Kieron Freeman, John Fleck and Everton loanee Kieran Dowel demonstrated with his winning first-half header at The Hawthorns, they are also coming from other areas of the pitch.
United, already without injured defenders Jack O’Connell and George Baldock, lost centre-half John Egan (tight calf muscle) at half time. It said much then that an already rejigged back three now bolstered by Richard Steadman, stood steadfast under considerable West Brom pressure which nonetheless, only troubled keeper Dean Henderson into making one crucial save.
And United did this whilst still maintaining a menacing attacking presence. If only they had learned this lesson a couple of weeks earlier against more fallible opposition, they would have been proudly maintaining their position at the head of the table.
To not make the same mistake twice, however, is evidence of a hard lesson learned and a close-knit squad of players taking notice. Exciting times and more proof that United’s destiny really does lie in their own hands.