If, at the start of the season, Sheffield United fans were told that the Blades would be just one point away from second with one game remaining the majority would never have believed it. This isn’t because of blind optimism leading fans to expect to have already sealed promotion, but instead because of the time we thought was needed to change our fortunes around.
With relegation so unexpected at the start of last season many Unitedites were anticipating a big clear out to help reduce the oversized wage-bill. For this reason, as well as having to find a new manager, 99% of supporters would be thrilled to make the play-offs back in August. However, after 45 league games and being securely in second place since February 14th, being shifted into the play-offs after the penultimate game certainly is painful, particularly when you see who has displaced the Blades.
At the end of May last year, Sheffield United made what was the first contentious managerial decision to happen at several clubs this season by appointing ex-Sheffield Wednesday player and manager, Danny Wilson. The protests to his appointment were partly to do with his past connections but also his lack of success in recent years. This record, accompanied by names such as Roberto Di Matteo on the shortlist, was enough alone to outrage many Blades. Wilson was only one man’s first choice but, thankfully, very few Blades could argue with the selection now with his name being sung from the terraces.
The season started brightly with goals coming thick and fast from all areas of the team, all before top goal scorer Ched Evans had even kicked his first ball of the season. From mid-September, the rocky spell arrived with dropped points against Huddersfield, Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday, Wycombe and more. The run left United in fifth place after defeat to Stevenage in early November. This, however, wasn’t a disappointment as this was where most fans were expecting to be at the start of the season.
The worst part of the rough period was the performances. The players began the season playing with a composed, passing style that worked to break down teams by turning possession into goals. In their down turn of form the side reverted back to their old ways and tried to be more direct, cutting out the midfield which had helped to win so many games.
To be truthful, the Blades got by thanks to some excellent work in the loan market by Danny Wilson to bring in Matty Phillips and Billy Clarke on month-long loans from Blackpool. It wasn’t long after the duo returned to their parent club when Evans began to hit form. Thirteen goals from the forward in little over two months from November to January saw the Blades soar into the FA Cup fourth round and back up to second in the table.
February continued in much the same fashion and staying in second place with a five point cushion and optimism was rich in S2. One of the most important factors in the rise was the lack of attention being paid to the club and its unvarying form. The sackings of Gary Megson and Lee Clark, the consistency of Charlton at the top of the league and Jordan Rhodes continuing to top the country’s goal scoring charts shadowed the progress the club were making. This, accompanied with a very stable squad, built up the confidence to grind out wins and keep Wilson’s men out of the headlines.
March arrived in the worst possible way with a home game against Oldham, where United finished the game with no defenders on the pitch due to family problems, injuries and two red cards. It was a strange game and, despite being 2-0 up and cruising at half time, an injury time penalty saw an emphatic turnaround for the away side. This game seems to sum up our season, especially after the latest slip up. It feels as though only Sheffield United could be so in control before moments of madness, a lack of luck or factors outside of the club’s hands that could destroy thousands of dreams.
Other than a defeat to Walsall, which followed the Oldham game and saw a makeshift defence containing two loanees signed that day, the rest of the month played out as if that game had never happened as the Blades became the highest league goal scorers in the top four English leagues. United were sitting pretty, just above Sheffield Wednesday, to the continued delight of the red and white side of the city.
Even though the Blades had occupied second spot for some time now, almost every supporter could sense danger ahead as has become expected from our past. Rival jeers came flooding in, as would only be suspected, citing Ched Evans’ continued run of fine form to have led the club to become a ‘one man team.’ This, again, didn’t unhinge the progress and it appeared nothing could stop the return to the Championship.
With just four games of the season remaining, Evans was in court accused of raping a teenager the previous summer. Questions were asked as to whether the striker would play on the Saturday midway through the trial, which Danny Wilson responded to by saying he would play if he was fit. At that time Evans was still innocent until proven guilty and in his final game against Leyton Orient, he scored his 35th goal of the campaign. The celebration was unusual for Ched as he tore away, pulling off his shirt rather than his usual jog to the corner and triumphant knee-slide. My first impressions were that he was overwhelmed by his achievement as there is no hiding his record this term, however, in hindsight; it appeared to be as much of a goodbye to the fans as anything else.
On the following Friday afternoon, Evans was charged with rape and sentenced to five years in prison. I, like many others, have questions about the case but a unanimous decision by the jury is the only thing that is a known certainty and that is what must be respected. A day later, a strike force of Will Hoskins and Chris Porter were the chosen partnership to replace Evans and the injured Richard Cresswell at MK Dons.
The performance was lacklustre and many not at the game wondered if this just demonstrated how much United missed Evans. Personally, I think it was the effort and commitment of Cresswell that was most missed and the morale in the camp must have been at a real low. Any manager would have had a job raising his players after such news.
Despite the defeat and a last minute winner in the game at Hillsborough, United were still on top; until Saturday night. Whether it was the media attention following the Ched Evans verdict or the fact the game was to be shown on Sky, it took until the introduction of Cresswell and Flynn before we began to see a side that resembled Sheffield United this season. The goals conceded had an element of luck about them, but they were also the result of poor defending. The result left Blades fans deflated and almost certainly left to find their fate in the play-offs.
After a few days of mulling over the season, Saturday afternoon could be lining up to be the best day in years for Blades fans. It’s true that things are never easily achieved, especially at Bramall Lane, but with all expectations diminished, United fans could still have the last laugh. And even if they don’t succeed in gaining automatic promotion, there is the back-up possibility of the play-offs, but no one wants that, do they?
Written by Eddie Chapman, We Are Going Up’s Sheffield United blogger
Eddie tweets at @eddiechap