After last year’s catastrophic end to a season where they looked destined for promotion, Sheffield United have found this season much tougher – @josephclift looks at what’s different at Bramall Lane this season, and their prospects for making it second time lucky.
With about a third of the season left to go, a handful of teams are running away with each division with one exception – League 1. After the games on Tuesday, four points are all that separate the top 7 clubs.
To the casual observer, that might suggest an unusually high quality to the division this year. Dedicated watchers though will know this view to be wholly inaccurate. League 1 is a visibly poorer division this year and Sheffield United have highlighted this fact well, in what has been an odd season at Bramall Lane.
While last season ended in the crushing disappointment of the playoff final, fans had at least enjoyed a revival of sorts in both the style we played and results we earned. Danny Wilson’s appointment saw a significant amount of fan anger – based on his past Wednesday connections and patchy managerial record. But he quickly got the team playing an attractive and successful style – and with supporters still licking their wounds from the bitter end to last season they’ve been prepared to give him a fair crack of the whip this year.
Expiring contracts and some notable sales though have forced Wilson to reshape the squad – leading to a more sluggish, more solid XI. Kevin McDonald, the key dictator of play last year, surprisingly remained, but the quality around him had vanished. Compounding matters is McDonald’s inconsistent form this term. But, while the football was poorer, it still yielded results earlier in the season.
However, there’s been a sense of unease at many of the games this season. Our previously water tight defence has become dangerously porous. Where games were comfortably won last season now they are nervy tense affairs. A less positive style has meant fewer chances and fewer goals and a greater danger that the odd goal conceded will be costly.
In January, pace and quality needed to be added. It had been clear that the squad has struggled to cope with injuries to key players like Neill Collins and Shaun Miller. Which was why the sale of top scorer Nick Blackman was met with a ‘WTF?’, ‘here-we-go-again’, and more than a few ‘McCabe-Out’s.
Chairman Kevin McCabe, in whom Sheffield United fans’ trust has steadily been falling since the Robson appointment, did little to provide reassurance. McCabe suggested he couldn’t stand in Blackman’s way (despite only signing him last summer) and regardless of selling him would be able to strengthen the squad (before still going ahead and selling him). This came in the middle of the worst run of the season, with 3 successive home defeats crumbling what had been an unbeaten home record till then. In a season where 39 managers have changed job, the manner of these defeats had fans for the first time seriously suggesting Wilson’s time was up. Wilson’s decision to bring former Academy product Jonathan Forte in on loan to fill Blackman’s shoes added fuel to this fire, despite his reasonable League 1 record.
And yet, two comfortable away wins in the last week, alongside nearly all of the top 6 dropping points, leaves United still contesting League 1 which remains wide open at the top. Tranmere at last seem to be going through their bad spell, Donny don’t appear to have quite recovered from the shock of Saunders’s departure, Swindon seem in all sorts of trouble off the pitch, and I’ve lost track on how far MK Dons have fallen out of the equation. But despite Blackman’s sale, Wilson does seem to have added the depth he needed. Experience in the form of Danny Higginbotham and Barry Robson, a bit more pace on the wings through Jamie Murphy. And, of course, more strikers. Wilson said after tuesday’s game “we can’t rely on just one”. That’s not just a reference to the current need, as the Decreasingly-Secret Footballer Dave Kitson has become increasingly relied on for the goals, but also on last season. It’s no secret that the jailing of our, and arguably the league’s, top striker affected the run-in. In theory, Wilson had a Plan B in the form of loanee Will Hoskins. When he injured himself almost immediately, there was no Plan C to call on. With Forte already on board, Wilson’s capture of pacy striker/winger Dominic Poleon is a sign he’s wanting to avoid a repeat of last year where we were caught short at a critical moment.
Any team in the top 7 that can play consistently in the last few months of the season should end up in the top two. And while the spine of Sheffield United’s team has been about as reliable as Richard III’s for much of this year, they could end up there. Which, given how the team has performed, would be a perfect example of the mediocrity League 1 has seen this season.