It will be tense, nervous and psychologically gruelling.
Force everyone involved, particularly those wearing Sheffield United colours, to walk an emotional razorwire between joy and despair. Underpinned by a bitter regional rivalry, Barnsley’s appearance at Bramall Lane tomorrow threatens to be an antagonistic, potentially volatile encounter between two teams adamant they can reach the end of season play-offs. Or, as Billy Sharp called it earlier this week: “the perfect game.”
“I don’t think we could have wished for a better occasion,” he admitted. “And, personally speaking, I think it’s set-up exactly how we want. They’ll bring lots of fans, our supporters will be making a huge amount of noise and the atmosphere should be brilliant. Plus, it’s on home soil for us. We really couldn’t ask for more.”
This is a match United, four points behind sixth-placed Gillingham with only three matches remaining, simply can not afford to lose. But Sharp’s take on the fixture, and the circumstances surrounding it, is indicative of the new cold-blooded attitude running through Nigel Adkins’ squad. Their latest opponents, who only trail the top six on goal difference after beating Peterborough three days ago, know defeat is an undesirable but not disastrous option. A luxury Sharp, who enters the fixture having scored 13 goals in his last 21 appearances, actually believes gives United an edge.
“We’re playing a club that’s above us in the table which, to be honest, is really good It means we don’t have to win and then rely on them losing. All we have to focus on is making sure they do exactly that; lose. Then, hopefully, we can win the one after that (at Coventry City) and sneak in to the play-offs when Scunthorpe come here on the final weekend. We’re getting a bit of a run going at exactly the right time. If we keep on winning and showing the same approach then I’m sure we’ll catch the others up.”
Sharp’s absolute belief in United’s destiny will be viewed, in some quarters at least, as an attempt to apply some positive spin to a season of inconsistent results and capricious performances. Adkins and his squad have been written-off more times than a Greek financier’s balance sheet of late but, after finally gathering some momentum since the turn of the month, the centre-forward’s conviction is supported by cold hard facts. Ninth in the table, Tuesday evening’s victory over Shrewsbury Town lifted United to third in the one which gauges current form. By the same measure, Barnsley are eighth and Gillingham, having drawn three and lost two of their previous five outings, 18th.
“We’ve finally managed to find the knack of winning games,” Sharp, speaking after the scoring the first of United’s two goals at Greenhous Meadow, continued. “It doesn’t have to be pretty and, although we are playing some good stuff, we’re also doing the horrible things that help you win games. The back three are enjoying themselves now and everyone is contributing. There’s a really good feeling in the camp and we’re confident in ourselves.”
Nevertheless, Barnsley are a very different team to the one which held United to a fortuitous draw at Oakwell in November. Then, with Paul Heckingbottom’s predecessor Lee Johnson still at the helm, they were languishing in the relegation zone having only just arrested a run of eight straight league defeats. Now, a change of manager, one Johnstone’s Paint Trophy success and only four defeats later, they are among the division’s most brutally effective teams. United, though, have developed a ruthless streak too as events in Shropshire proved. Goalkeeper George Long saved a penalty before Sharp claimed his 20th of the campaign. Abu Ogogo’s equaliser gave Shrewsbury hope but it was quickly extinguished when Che Adams restored the visitors’ lead.
“We knew it was going to be hard down there because they are fighting for their lives,” Sharp said. “But we are ready to sacrifice ourselves and do whatever it takes. We showed good character and didn’t let a set-back drag us down. Longy made a great stop and I wasn’t surprised because he works on that all the time in training. We showed great character to go on and get the win.”
United, having kept three clean sheets during a four match unbeaten run, are again set to deploy their 3-5-2 formation against Barnsley. But Sharp, who together with Adams is tasked with being the “first line of defence” by Adkins, cited a settled starting eleven rather than a change of system as the catalyst for recent upturn in form.
“We’re all ready to chip in an, as the gaffer says himself, the team hasn’t changed that much which really helps. It means you can build rhythm and partnerships. The lads on the bench are all contributing because, even though they’re disappointed not to be playing, they know they’ll get their chance. If we do achieve something, it’s better for everyone in the long run.”
Tomorrow’s result could decide whether that happens this season or next.