AT FIRST glance, Sheffield United’s mediocre position of tenth in the Coca-Cola Championship represents a massive disappointment for Yorkshire’s highest-placed professional club.
With four games of the season left United – a side that came within three points of automatic promotion last season, and reached the Championship Play-Off final – are nine points behind sixth-placed Leicester City. Although qualification for the top six is not a mathematical impossibility, the fact that United are only ten points above the relegation zone emphasises the disappointment that the season has been.
United’s attempts to gatecrash the Play-Off party for a second successive season, however, have been scuppered by a devastating injury list, which has given manager Kevin Blackwell a selection headache every weekend for the last eight months.
Goalkeeper Steve Simonsen, signed on loan from Stoke City, became United’s 22nd debutant of the campaign after first choice shot-stopper Paddy Kenny was handed a drugs ban, reserve veteran Ian Bennett broke a finger, and loanee ‘keepers Mark Bunn and Carl Ikeme both returned to their parent clubs.
To put the figure in context, Nottingham Forest – currently third in the Championship table – have used just 27 players all season.
“We’ve been planning for the future for some time now,” Blackwell said. “We’ve had too many loans and too many people out at various stages of the campaign so I think to even be in with a shout of the play-offs is a terrific achievement.
“It shows how well the boys have done.”
United’s season is not completely over yet, however, by any stretch of the imagination – with the small matter of a Steel City derby against city rivals Wednesday on April 18, sandwiched in between home games against Coventry City and Swansea City at Bramall Lane.
The first Steel City derby goal of the 2009/10 season – who will get the last?
United then travel to Roy Keane’s Ipswich Town on the last day of the term – but Blackwell denied any suggestion that his side would just let their season peter out tamely, insisting that there is more than just points and places to play for between now and May 2.
“People here are playing for their futures now,” he said. “There are a lot of the lads coming up to the end of their deals and there are also a lot of lads here who are on loan.
“They are due to go back when the campaign comes to a close and so there’s plenty for them to fight for. Not all of them will be coming back, we know that and they accept that, but some might – and so how they perform during the remainder of the season is going to have a bearing on that.”
With a plethora of key players, including Nick Montgomery, Gary Naysmith and Derek Geary all set to become free agents when their contracts expire in the summer, Blackwell is bracing himself for a hectic summer in the transfer market.
But no matter how long he has been planning for the future, it is important Blackwell does not lose sight of the here and now – as a Steel City derby defeat at Hillsborough, which would be their third in as many years, could prove the final straw for United supporters already frustrated at the prospect of another season in English football’s second tier.
Tomorrow’s visitors, Coventry City, are in a similar position after seeing their hopes of a late charge towards the top six thwarted by a run of seven games without victory. United’s attentions will then turn to a potentially mouth-watering derby clash with Wednesday who, at the time of writing, are languishing in the relegation zone and in real danger of falling through the Championship’s trap door.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this division it’s that you can’t take anything for granted,” Andy Taylor, United’s left-back, said.
“We’re not going to give in until we either sneak in, or someone tells us it’s become impossible.
“I agree we can’t afford any more slip-ups and even then we’ll have to rely on other people’s results. But look at Reading. Not so long ago they were in danger of going down. Now they are right up there and they’ve shown that, while anyone is capable of beating anyone, it’s possible to put together than type of run.”
Taylor’s optimism may prove to be unfounded, but the fact that the players are playing for their futures – as well as the always-passionate meeting with Wednesday – means that the season is far from over for both Sheffield United players, staff and supporters.