The remote chance that we had of making the play-offs was surrendered with a meek performance at Doncaster. A predictably soft goal given from a set-piece with a second almost as soft goal following not too soon after and no response for the final 60 minutes and that was it for the season. It only served to confirm that we weren’t going to pull a rabbit out of the hat in these final few games but it’s disappointing nonetheless that we couldn’t keep the illusion alive ahead of a long summer.
As bad as we’ve been over the second half of the season, we’re guaranteed our highest league position in a decade and four points from these final two games would be our highest points tally since relegation from the Premier League. I wouldn’t regard this season as one of progress considering we’ve gotten worse as it’s progressed but it just goes to show that the mediocrity we’ve descended into is an improvement on the ineptitude of the years before.
Not that these kind of records really matter when there’s nothing tangible to achieve and there is a temptation now to just play the youngsters. There are legitimate reasons to do so, Steven Pressley did so when he first arrived and saw enough from Callum Wilson – who would probably have been released otherwise – to earn him a starting spot for the following campaign where he exploded on the scene. It doesn’t always work, but I don’t think it’s the type of opposition that has an impact on the performance you get from an untried youngster, it’s the youngster themselves. If you don’t play them, you’ll only find out when you’re forced to play them when things really matter.
The most open spot in the team for experimentation is at left-back where Sam Ricketts is now out for the remainder of the season but we don’t really have a natural left-back waiting to step up. Ryan Haynes hasn’t been recalled and is injured, Jordan Willis could slot in but is still recovering from injury, the same could be said for Chris Stokes. Devon Kelly-Evans played some games as a left wing-back in pre-season the year before last but has matured into more of an attacking player, his twin brother Dion is more naturally right-sided and both appear to lack the frame to be thrown into first-team action out of position. Cian Harries might be able to do a job but seemingly is seen as a centre-back. The only genuine alternative to Stephen Hunt is the right-footed Martin Lorentzson, which is slightly more preferable for me. but sounds like it isn’t going to happen
Last Time We Met
It was a memorable game, in a negative sense as it transpired, when we last faced Sheffield United. The game, front of the Sky cameras, came not too soon after we’d gone top of the league and with Sheffield United in indifferent form, it looked like we were set to continue a good run of results against our frequent tormentors.
A first-half performance where we eased into the game was livened up by Ruben Lameiras creating danger on the right wing. Lameiras’ level of skill befuddled a cumbersome Sheffield United side, eventually leading to some crude challenges from Dean Hammond and Jay McEveley, both of whom should have been sent off for a series of fouls on Lameiras. When Jacob Murphy’s cross was deflected over the line and not awarded as a goal, it looked like it just wasn’t going to be our day. A late Billy Sharp goal, from a set-piece unsurprisingly, and a red card to Sam Ricketts only served to further emphasise the point.
How Are They Doing?
It hasn’t been a vintage year at Sheffield United by any stretch of the imagination. In replacing Nigel Clough with Nigel Adkins in the summer after a frustratingly inconsistent campaign which nonetheless finished with a play-off semi-final, Sheffield United thought they finally had the man to secure a long overdue return to the Championship. Only for this season to prove to be one of the worst of their current five-year stint in League One.
Although the Blades retain hope of making the play-offs, they have been obdurate and uninspiring for much of the campaign. In fairness to Nigel Adkins, he was left a bloated and unbalanced squad by his predecessor with little freedom to re-jig the team to his liking. Although the signings Adkins has made have been experienced campaigners who have done little to add dynamism to a squad desperately in need of it.
One of the few bright spots of the season in terms of players has been Che Adams, a former youth-team player with the Sky Blues. Operating either out wide or as a striker, Adams is the kind of raw, pacey attacker that can get bums off seats. The more experienced Matt Done is Sheffield United’s other main source of dynamism, but for his work-rate rather than his pace.
The rest of this Sheffield United side is packed full of experienced, robust campaigners who, as we saw in our last meeting, will look to impose themselves on the game physically. The main aggressors of that game at Bramall Lane, Jay McEveley and Dean Hammond, remain key although have been much maligned this season by Sheffield United fans for their lack of mobility. With Chris Basham (by name and by nature) in midfield too, there is going to be a tough, physical block for us to navigate around.
Finally, there’s Billy Sharp up front, Sheffield United’s top-scorer on 20 for the season. Now in his third spell at Bramall Lane, this has been by far his most successful one at his boyhood club. Synonymous with goalscoring in the Football League, Sharp endured a patchy start to the season but has generally been a reliable presence in front of goal when chances have fallen his way.
Not really based on anything rational at all, I’m leaning towards us getting the win here. Sheffield United haven’t been great this season but find themselves in a position of having to win this game to maintain a faint hope of the play-offs, there is no pressure at all on us to do anything here. That lack of pressure can manifest itself either way but I’ve just got a feeling that we’ll get the win here, for all that it matters.
3-1 win for the Sky Blues, why not?