‘SHEFFIELD Wednesday are better than you,’ chanted a section of Exeter City’s supporters during the first-half of their entertaining draw with Sheffield United. The truth hurts.
As the Owls partied into the early hours of Sunday morning after securing the second automatic promotion berth in League One, their city rivals headed back to South Yorkshire reflecting on what might have been.
For nearly three months, the Bramall Lane outfit occupied the runners-up spot and were in control of their own destiny, earning rave reviews for the attractive brand of football delivered under the esteemed leadership of Danny Wilson. Ultimately, though, United came up short in their quest to go up automatically.
The fact is the 2-2 draw with the relegated Grecians was not the result which condemned Wilson’s men to the play-offs. Surrendering a 2-0 lead at home to the Owls proved costly, as was the inexplicable defeat to Oldham Athletic having led by two goals to nil. Those two games alone saw them squander five vital points.
Minus influential striker Ched Evans, who was jailed for rape last month, United have hit a rocky patch at the worst possible time. Results have dipped on the pitch. They produced a below-par display at fellow promotion contenders MK Dons and although they fought back superbly against Stevenage and Exeter, demonstrating character and a never-say-die attitude which will serve them well for the challenges looming on the horizon, only two out of a possible nine points were gleaned.
The bottom line is United’s attack looks far less threatening without Evans. His ability to conjure a goal out of nothing made him one of the most lethal and feared strikers in the division.
But it was not just goals the Wales international contributed. It was his all-round play which enhanced United’s cause. His prodigious work rate and harrying of defenders forced opponents into mistakes while he also ran the channels effectively.
Richard Cresswell, James Beattie and Chris Porter all have their own strengths and will put tireless shifts in but none possess the pace to get in behind a defence and stretch a back four. Shorn of the services of Evans, there is a shortage of speed and movement off the ball on the front line, leaving Wilson with a tough conundrum to solve.
Nonetheless, it is unfair to accuse United of being a one-man team. Yes, Evans is a matchwinner but so is Lee Williamson. So is Stephen Quinn. So is Kevin McDonald.
However, Evans absence has prompted Wilson, as he hinted in his pre-match press conference, into changing his tactics. He reverted to ‘Plan B’ at St James Park, lumping it long to James Beattie. I applaud him for adopting the direct approach and trying to mix up his strikeforce by recalling Beattie and Cresswell but the selection of ex-England international Beattie did not pay off, with the 34-year-old, making just his second start since rejoining the club last November, being sent off for a second time this season for a two-footed tackle.
When Beattie went off, United improved and looked much more assured in possession, passing to feet and playing with greater authority. More of the same will be required in end of season extravaganza.
Psychologically, it would have been a big morale booster for the squad to have beaten the Grecians and silenced the critics who believe they can’t win without Evans but it was not to be.
They paid the price for a sluggish start. Everything was too slow in the opening half an hour. There was no zip to their play and they didn’t pick up many second balls in midfield, allowing Exeter to take the initiative. Any complacent periods of this nature again and United can kiss goodbye to their promotion aspirations.
Wilson’s side appeared disjointed and were second best in every department. They simply were not at ‘it’, failing to impose their will on a team who already knew their fate. They can ill-afford to start in such a lethargic, sloppy fashion at Stevenage on Friday night.
Now is the time for United to show their class and raise their game one last time. Every player stepped up and performed brilliantly at Exeter after Beattie’s sending off. You couldn’t tell who had the extra man. That level of commitment, pride and heart has to be replicated potentially three more times to see the club over the finishing line.
Things fell flat in Devon mid-way through the second half as the scoreline from Hillsborough filtered through. Scott Bennett’s equaliser deep into added on time did not matter as the damage had already been done.
Stevenage await in the semi-finals of the end of season lottery. A day out at Wembley is the prize for the winner. A trophy is up for grabs and come 5pm on Saturday May 26, United could be celebrating promotion back to the second tier of English football.
Overcoming Stevenage, though, will be far from straight forward over two legs and history is stacked against United. Five times they have attempted to clinch promotion through the play-off route, five times they have failed.
But goalkeeper Steve Simonsen, who angrily threw one of his gloves to the ground at the final whistle at Exeter, has stated: “I know all about our record in the play-offs – good or bad – they are there to be broken.”
Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday, United and MK Dons suffered defeats on Stevenage’s patch during the league programme so Wilson’s troops have it all to do.
Brace yourselves United fans for another nail-biting finale. If promotion is going to be achieved, it is going to have to be done the hard way. The race for second maybe over, but the battle to reach the national stadium will commence shortly.