As a Blade you get used to thinking about what could have been but this season it all feels a bit different. Yes we could have made the playoffs had we not been utterly useless for half a season and yes we may have made the FA Cup Final if we had held firm in the first 20 minutes of the second half at Wembley, yet I still don’t find myself constantly going over our short comings in my head.
Since that watershed moment on 1st February where we were comprehensively beaten by Crewe, the club seems to have been returned to the fans and the community and there is an overwhelming sense of togetherness both on and off the pitch. Even when times were good under the likes of Neil Warnock there were always doubters and the odd section of the crowd that still wasn’t happy with what they saw and how the team was progressing.
This doesn’t seem to be the case now however and Nigel Clough has brought a level of belief and happiness that seems relatively unparalleled when compared to previous regimes. Part of this must be down to the abomination that was our form prior to Clough taking over and the fact that things couldn’t get any worse but this certainly isn’t the overriding factor in the current feeling of togetherness at the Lane.
The club now appears to have a group of players that will run through brick walls for each other and who understand what the fans expect from them. Working your backside off should be a pre-requisite of playing for United and the current squad seems to have taken this on board. I also feel that we have now lost the underlying sense of arrogance that sometimes seemed to run through the club.
The arrogance I refer to is the apparent belief that we had a divine right to win games because we are the biggest club in the league and because on paper we should be challenging to get out of this league rather than to stay in it. Nigel Clough is a muck and nettles type of guy and it is clear to see that he believes all players must apply the basics before then looking to provide flair and individuality to their game. It is fantastic to see that the players he has inherited and retained during the transfer window have bought into this along with the fresh faces that were brought in during the last few months.
Looking forward to next season I think there is genuine reason to feel optimistic that we should enjoy a successful season but I think there is also now a sense of realism throughout the club that nothing will be given to us. The first team squad is by no means complete and some shrewd acquisitions are required during the summer. Our lack of goals are still a cause for concern and if we are going to get out of this league at the fourth time of asking then this must be addressed, When we are on top in games we must find the penetration to ensure that we take our chances and put games to bed.
When our retained list is released in the near future we will all have a better idea of where we need to strengthen but it is clear that attacking players will be the main focal point of the clubs summer shopping list. Another matter that will no doubt be addressed soon will be the long term availability of some of the loan players that have been a huge part of our resurgence in the last three.
I would be amazed if Ben Davies wasn’t signed on a free when his contract expires as his experience and versatility could prove invaluable. Conor Coady’s situation at Liverpool will be monitored very closely and I personally think we will be able to retain his services next season as the lad clearly loved his time at Bramall Lane this season and I would be very surprised if Brendan Rogers felt he was going to be part of his first-team squad.
This then leaves Billy Paynter, Kieron Freeman and John Brayford. I won’t spend long dwelling on the merits of signing Paynter as he has offered nothing and I would happily thank him for his contribution and send him back to Doncaster. Now that Freeman and Brayford have returned to their parent clubs we are left without a recognised right back at the club (assuming Daryl Westlake moves on to pastures new which looks likely) so I would therefore imagine that we will look to sign one of them for next season be it on a permanent or temporary basis.
I am sure plenty of people will disagree with me on this but I would look to sign Kieron Freeman on a permanent basis rather than looking to bring back Brayford. John Brayford has been fantastic for the team and the club as a whole and he is the best right back in the division by far, I am not disputing this. The issue I have is that we would only be able to sign him on loan again as there is no way on earth we will be able to afford to by him. We would therefore probably have to make a sizeable contribution to his wages and I feel this money could be better spent elsewhere.
As good as Brayford is, Kieron Freeman would be a more than adequate full back at this level and would probably cost us a fraction of the money. At the end of the day, a right back won’t win you games but a top striker will and this is where our money should be spent.
I trust Clough to bring the right faces in during the summer and I think with a couple of top quality acquisitions at both ends of the pitch we will be well set to mount a serious attack on automatic promotion next season. I am sure that everybody at the club from the board room through the supporters will learn from the mistakes of the first six months of last season and we have real reason to be optimistic. Let’s not forget however that this is Sheffield United we are talking about, since when have we done things the easy way?
Written by Ian Parkes, We Are Going Up’s Sheffield United blogger
Ian tweets at @ijparkes