Fifth in the table with eight games remaining and six points clear of seventh place, writes James Shield, Sheffield United have genuine aspirations of reaching the Championship next term.
But Nigel Clough will not be satisfied with building a promotion winning team. He also wants to build a club.
“We want to get up and then stay up,” he told The Star earlier this week. “We don’t want to get there and then found ourselves fighting relegation. We want to get out of the division and then try and kick-on.”
Clough, the United manager, outlined his philosophy ahead of tomorrow’s League One encounter against Crewe Alexandra which, following Tuesday’s over Scunthorpe, represents another pivotal fixture in the play-off race. With the margins for error uncomfortably slim, the 49-year-old must balance plans to lay strong foundations with taking care of the here and now. But the fact United embarked upon a major recruitment drive during the recent transfer window, he insisted, could give them a distinct advantage along the finishing straight.
“We expect our group to get better,” Clough, speaking during a break in training at the Redtooth Academy, said. “We’ve seen both sides. Some very good stuff and then the bits when you can see six or so came in since January.
“Most of them are at a good age, there are very few outfield players over 30.”
“We’ve got people coming back,” Clough added. “And some good players too. The cup success shows the potential here.
“We’ve got the potential to get out. Hopefully we can do it at the earliest opportunity.”
Clough has led United into the semi-finals of both major domestic knockout competitions since taking charge 17 months ago. Some of the funds generated en route were used the fund the arrival of players such as John Brayford and Paul Coutts from Cardiff City and Derby County respectively although youngsters such as Louis Reed, Kieran Wallace and Che Adams have also been introduced.
“If you get the base right, get the right players and give them opportunities, they thrive,” Clough said. “You might get a few dodgy times with young players but over time they’ll do it.
“You put the club in a good position because you don’t have to keep spending, spending, spending. You won’t bankrupt a football club doing it this way.
“Yes, we paid a lot of money for one, But we feel that, for us, he’s worth it.
“If the players come here young or through the ranks then they grow together. They have an affinity for the club. And it’s self perpetuating because you get the success and other good young players look at what’s happening and want to be part of it.”
“A lot of the players we’ve got, we think, will be good enough for the next level too,” Clough continued. “I understand the (supporters’) frustrations at times, but, if you play Louis for example, you’ve also got to give them time to develop. It’s difficult trying to get the balance right but it can be done.”
Clough used his former club Derby County’s miserable experience of top-flight football in 2007/08, combined with United’s failure to regain the Premier League status they surrendered a season earlier, to highlight the importance of this two-pronged approach.
“Look at Derby. Before were went there, they got up and then got relegated on lowest ever points total because it wasn’t built on anything. I bet, when we got relegated from Premier League here, everyone was saying let’s get straight back up. Here we are, eight years later.”
Clough is the ninth person to take charge of United following their slide out of the top tier. A record which contrasts sharply with at least two other teams jostling for position towards the summit of League One.
“MK Dons and Preston, over the last four or five years they’ve been growing together and building,” he said. “They’ve been knocking on that door and if you keep on knocking, then you’ll walk through in the end.
“We’ve got to build a team that’s going to be together for the next few years but we’re also aware that we’re got to get out as soon as we can.”