Alan Biggs: What's stopping Sheffield United mounting a late push for the play-offs?
Everyone mentions 'expectations' when Sheffield United are discussed. Except for right now, perhaps... because, for once, there are none.
Or, let’s say, very few, even of a late scramble into a play-off spot in the eyes of some supporters and perhaps understandably so.
But the lack of expectation might just be among factors suddenly to the Blades’ advantage. Another would be that there are small but detectable signs of a sea change in the wake of arguably the club’s lowest ebb, in terms of on-field performance, since relegation to the bottom division in 1980.
From manager Nigel Adkins, and key backroom staff, a coherent plan for the future is beginning to emerge. It isn’t, of course, the one originally intended.
A squad mistakenly considered good enough (by this writer among many others) is being gradually stripped to the bone. An accompanying intention to blood young talent is embodied by the promising introduction of midfielder Ben Whiteman. And, best of all, he’s not alone.
Let’s say it by numbers – five and eight. Five is the number of recent academy graduates who were in United’s squad for the restorative jolt of a 3-0 win over Oldham (including Louis Reed, Graham Kelly, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and keeper George Long).
Eight is the number of games in a row won by United’s Under 18s up to a 4-3 defeat to Crystal Palace.
Naturally the focus is mostly on the seniors and the cry is always for established players to be recruited. But the Blades’ academy, led by Nick Cox, is proving a continually productive natural resource.
Times of struggle bring that operation to greater prominence – and importance. Problems bring opportunities.
Talking of which, a not-to-be-ruled out play-off opportunity is still one very much to be taken by a team hitting form at the right time. Why can’t that be United?
Six points is hardly an insurmountable gap ten games from home. The greater barrier is having four clubs to leapfrog.
But, remarkably, United have still to play six of the nine teams immediately above them in the battle for play-off places, starting at Millwall on Saturday.
So there could yet be a pleasant surprise in store – especially with everyone looking the other way and nothing much expected!