BLADES supporters can seldom look into the night sky and see the stars align. But it appears to be happening.
As early as mid-March Sheffield United have given themselves two bites of the cherry in a bid to return Premier League football at Bramall Lane; the preferred direct route or via the play-offs.
Ten matches unbeaten, 18 goals scored, only five conceded, and seven successive clean sheets. Whether or not the club’s co-owners, due shortly to have their day in court to settle a bitter battle for outright ownership, are prepared for a growing possibility of life in the top flight and the inevitable financial outlay squad reinforcement will demand, remains to be seen.
Not in doubt is the remarkable job Chris Wilder, his staff and team have done to reach the latest international break second in the Championship table, four points behind leaders Norwich City, with eight fixtures remaining.
They headed off to a short warm weather training break this week in Valencia, minus those on international duty, with an equally warm glow, having crowned a pivotal part of the campaign with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Leeds to leapfrog their Yorkshire rivals into an automatic promotion spot.
A performance which spoke hugely of how the Blades have developed into a team possessing the wherewithal to approach the run-in, starting with Bristol City at the Lane a week on Saturday, with confidence.
Leeds played most of the football at Elland Road and can justifiably feel on quality of performance they were worth at least a point if not three as Argentine boss Marcello Bielsa lamented. Seventy percent possession tells its own story.
But the Blades, far from best and unable to play their usual attacking, passing game, weathered the storm and limited Leeds, for all their superiority, to one shot which struck a post.
Surprisingly for a top-of-the-table clash featuring two teams which started having scored 126 goals between them, there was only one attempt on target which fell to Chris Basham.
Having had something of a personal nightmare in the first half, the centre-back all at sea in a now temporary midfield role, slotted home the winner, placing a sliderule pass from Billy Sharp out of reach of stranded goalkeeper Kiko Casilla. The 32-year-old Spaniard sent off late in the match after hauling down Blades skipper Sharp outside the box to deny him an opportunity of doubling the lead.
Wilder admitted that such was Basham’s inability to grab a hold on his allotted task, the manager was considering replacing him midway through the first half. “He's done well to be the match-winner,” said the Blades manager. “He was coming off after 25 minutes because he was absolutely useless. I was going to do what their [Leeds] manager does and drag him off, but we kept him in it and he epitomised what a Sheffield United player is. He dug himself out of a hole.”
It may have been coincidence that it was the 30-year-old Geordie who should clinch what could be regarded at the end of the season as the most valuable three points of the season. A draw at Elland Road would have left United in third trailing the Lillywhites by two points; defeat and that would have increased to a distant five.
But it is also a measure of Wilder’s uncanny knack of backing his own judgment and usually making the right decisions when they matters most. An asset which is worth its weight in managerial gold and not lost on admirers from higher up the food chain.
Given the uncertainty ownership issues continue to present, it makes it all the more important that United seize their chance in order to ensure a perfect marriage between the former Blades player, ballboy and lifelong fan of the club remains intact.
I was not alone being puzzled by the decision to start Basham in midfield whilst much better exponents Mark Duffy and Kieran Dowell sat on the bench. Bash, so comfortable and effective going forward as a right-sided centre-back, was painful to watch in a position he has regularly played for Blackpool Bolton and the Blades. None more so when he tamely fluffed an opportunity delivered on a plate inside the box by a 30-yard crossfield pass from striker David McGoldrick. A frustrated Sharp, perfectly positioned in front of the six-yard box, shaking his fists in frustration.
Credit to Basham for driving forward to get on the end of it, which as well as strengthening the defensive aspect in the middle of the park, was Wilder’s thinking in the first place. But the way Bash fluffed his line summed up a first half in which his only contribution was a timely defensive intervention where he looked far more comfortable.
“Every time I have a bad game or don’t feel my normal self I seem to score a goal,” said Basham who now has four to his credit this season. Adding of his plight in the first half: “Every time I got the ball I felt I had nothing on. I was saying to Ollie [Norwood] you get the ball because I didn’t really want much more of the ball, I just wanted to run forward and try to get away from it.
“To be honest I wasn’t enjoying the first half at all but the gaffer said ‘just come out and reset yourself and go again’. He’s got that belief in everybody, more belief in me that anybody, and I really enjoyed the second half.”
So did the largely redundant Dean Henderson who gifted Leeds, with the Blades in the ascendancy, three points at the Lane earlier in the season with a schoolboy gaffe in a 1-0 defeat. The subject if relentless jibes from Leeds fans at the weekend, he marched across to a section of them at the final whistle to let them know what he thought in a way that only Hendo can.
Leeds striker Patrick Bamford threw his dummy out of the pram claiming, without any foundation: “Hearing them [visiting fans] and hearing the Sheffield United boys, it was as if they already think they’re up.” Whilst one befuddled Leeds follower complained on Twitter, much to the derision of Blades, that the travelling supporters in the 37,000 plus crowd were far too noisy!
Bamford, who has only three more more goals to his name than defender Basham this season, at least got something right. “This game hasn’t decided the promotion race. It’s given Sheffield a little edge. For us we’ve got to just focus on the next game and forget about this because we can’t really criticise the performance too much.”
The Blades, however, successfully wrestled the balance of power and, as ever, still viewed as underdogs by many in the outside world, are most definitely a force to reckon with. It really is in their own hands where they go next.