To maintain Championship status, Sheffield United have two ties to win convincingly while hoping that either Crystal Palace or Doncaster lose both their matches by considerable margins. At the same time they have to hope Scunthorpe don’t win their two games and overtake the Blades.
And then there are the fixtures themselves: a Yorkshire derby against Barnsley and a trip to Wales to take on top-flight chasers Swansea City. In short, they look certain to follow Steel City rivals Wednesday down to League One, just four years after playing in the Premier League. They would be the latest name in a long list of teams recently in the top flight who have fallen into the third tier of the English football pyramid.
But for a short time in between one disastrous run of form and another, United looked like they could pull off a miraculous comeback. Victories against big boys Nottingham Forest and Leeds United added fuel to a dim flame of hope before four defeats in a row blew it out. Now many of the Blades faithful are just impatient for the inevitable to be confirmed so they can start afresh next season.
After a turbulent first three months of the campaign which saw three different managers take charge, Micky Adams was handed the reins at the club he supports and used to play for. But those who expected a honeymoon period were left disappointed. The win-less streak continued for twelve more matches. Sheffield’s United’s defence was error-prone, especially after injuries to captain Chris Morgan. They looked blunt up front – Ched Evans, the Welsh international signed for a club record £3 million from Manchester City, is possessed with a little skill but lacks positioning and commitment – he was never in a great position to receive a cross and didn’t seem to bust a gut to get into one, though a lot of the time he was feeding on scraps. The wingers were crossing from too far out to produce many dangerous balls.
The confidence had evaporated. After so many defeats and draws, the belief that this makeshift team of loan players and journeymen could muster anything was not there. To avoid the drop they had to start winning, and fast.
After 13 games into Adams’ tenure without a win, United beat Nottingham Forest 2-1. Wolves loanee Sam Vokes netted for the first time in red and white and academy product Matt Lowton headed home the second goal. And although Watford delivered a 3-0 thrashing in the next game, a huge weight had been lifted off Blades shoulders.
Up next was a Yorkshire derby. Promotion chasers Leeds United travelled to Bramall Lane and were humbled in a 2-0 victory for Sheffield United. Right from the kick-off, the Blades were on the offensive, and Daniel Bogdanovic should have scored when a Ched Evans flick put him one-on-one with keeper Kasper Schmeichel.
In truth, the Evans-Bogdanovic partnership still looked docile. It was the midfield and defence that won United the game; the back-line was relatively solid, for once, and a few midfield characters stepped up to the plate. Blades veteran Nick Montgomery delivered the lethal cross that Eric Lichaj turned into his own net. Bjorn Helge Riise, on loan from Fulham, cooly slotted the ball through Leeds legs for the second. And Stephen Quinn, another United stalwart, provided bags of energy and dynamism, if at times rushing things a little as he tends to do.
It was now known that, even if Sheffield United were a world away from the very top Championship sides, they had the power to beat any less skilful outfit – Leeds had not played well and Max Gradel, one of the Peacocks’ main goal threats, was off-target throughout the game.
United then travelled to London to face QPR and were defeated 3-0. This was not a surprising result, but with seven points between them and safety, they had to win their next match – Middlesbrough at Bramall Lane. A home game against a lower mid-table side was the best they could get, and anything less than a win would surely condemn them to relegation.
Boro drew first blood. Captain Matthew Bates made a run into the box and both Blades centre-backs – Shane Lowry and Neill Collins – were slow to pick him up. A looping ball found him and he duly dispatched. United were quick to recover and had a brilliant phase from then until half-time. The left-wing was the chosen route for creating chances. Bjorn Helge Riise whipped in two inviting crosses that fell to returning striker Darius Henderson. Henderson should have done better with them, but he opted to hit the ball near to the post rather than across the face of goal. But, soon after, another Riise cross Matt Lowton and United got their equaliser.
After half-time, Sheffield United continued their drive forward, but couldn’t find the winner. Yet another excellent cross from the Norwegian was wasted by Henderson. United had another couple of breaks, then seemed to lose hope. During the last 15 minutes one could see the energy being drained from them. Only Stephen Quinn had hope, trying desperately to keep the side he has been with for six years up. And then came the killer blow. A minute before the end of normal time, Julio Arca saw the Blades centre-backs miles apart and charged at them. This created space for Marvin Emnes to burst in from the right and fire the ball into the bottom corner. Sheffield United, now bottom of the table, had lost the match and, with it, the fans’ survival hopes.
The next match against Cardiff was basically a formality. United lost against a better team, simple as that. The 3-1 reverse at Preston edged them even closer to mathematical relegation. Then came two victories – both epic 3-2 affairs, against Bristol City and Reading. The latter in particular showed what might have been: United came back from being two-nil down to claim victory, showing fight seldom seen this year. But even if it was mathematically a lot easier to stay up, there have been too many crises of confidence at times when tenacity was crucial to hope for two victories against dangerous opposition.
It is difficult to see how Sheffield United are going to rebuild the team. The club is cash-strapped, with injury-prone Chris Morgan and Nick Montgomery making up a large portion of the wage bill, and it is laden with loanees and mediocre players. Ched Evans will probably leave, and this may not be such a bad thing. He has failed to justify the hefty sum United paid for his services, and his frustration during matches rubs off on his teammates.
Hopefully Quinn will stay with the club and fight to bring them back to the Championship, but with an inevitable transfer revolution in the summer, the time needed to gel may be such that the Blades spend longer than one season in League One.