Survival remains his sole objective ahead of a run of fixtures set to exert huge influence over their efforts to cement League One status but Nigel Clough, the Sheffield United manager, is confident next season will prove much more enjoyable for supporters at Bramall Lane, writes James Shield.
Clough, whose team enjoyed a welcome break from the cloying atmosphere of a relegation battle during Tuesday’s FA Cup replay with Fulham, warned only last week that players, coaching staff and supporters alike must accept the fact that the race to avoid a bottom four finish could go “right down to the wire.”
But, with new signings Stefan Scougall, John Brayford and Bob Harris hoping to feature in the squad which entertains Shrewsbury Town this afternoon, the former England international claimed United’s victory over Rene Meulensteen’s team provided a tantalising glimpse of what is set to come.
“I think everyone has seen the qualities some of those who have come in possess,” Clough said. “And that they compliment the ability which already exists within the group.
“Hopefully we achieve what we set out to do when we came in, which is stay up, and then look to move on from there.
“We’ve already shown in the competition what we are capable of and, honestly, there is very little between the two halves of the (League One) table.
“So, providing we continue to work hard and progress, then I see no reason why we can’t be challenging around the top six this time next year rather than where we are now.”
United’s delight in reaching the fifth round for the first time since 2009 - Shaun Miller scoring the only goal of a game which seemed destined to be decided on penalties until he pounced in the final minute of extra time - was tempered by the knowledge that Stevenage’s triumph over Gillingham earlier that evening meant they would enter today’s fixture just a point above Graham Westley’s 24th placed side.
Shrewsbury, a point ahead of 23rd placed United, installed Michael Jackson as manager following Graham Turner’s departure 18 days ago and are set to be without Aaron Wildig and Jermaine Grandison for the visit to South Yorkshire. Clough, whose captain Michael Doyle is again absent through suspension, will monitor Harry Maguire, Harris, Ryan Flynn and Chris Porter ahead of kick-off after all four sustained slight knocks at Craven Cottage.
“Straight away after the game (at Fulham) we found out the scores in League One,” Clough said. “It was probably asking too much for both to go our way so, although Stevenage won, I’m not going to deny we were pleased to hear Bristol City had lost because arguably that’s a better result for us.”
Clough, who admitted he was “genuinely shocked” by United’s performance during their 3-0 defeat by Crewe Alexandra last weekend, added: “We cleared the air after that. We dealt with it and moved on because that’s what we do.
“The lads wanted to put it behind them and they did that at Fulham. It wasn’t a mauling at Crewe by any means but, what with the timing of their goals, it just felt as if things passed us by which is unusual because the players have, by and large, done very well of late.
“We got the response we wanted at Fulham and we want to try and use that as a benchmark. If we can use that, reach roughly the same standards on the consistent basis, then there’s no doubt we should be winning games in this league.
“That’s what we want to see between now and the end of the season. And then also right to way through next.”
United, who will face Nottingham Forest for a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals next Sunday, were beaten 2-0 at Greenhous Meadow in November and enter the contest against Shrewsbury without a win in four league outings.
“We’re making trying to make sure the players are mentally and physically right,” Clough said. “We know how important it is.”