Promotion gap is 10 points ... but Blades don't talk about it: Sheffield United 2 Charlton Athletic 1
Sheffield United have become adept at devising new ways to avoid talking about promotion.
Their latest trick, expertly performed by Jack O’Connell following yet another win, was discussing the exacting training sessions Chris Wilder employs rather than League One titles or top-two finishes.
But, with every passing week, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the manager and his players to dampen talk about a return to the Championship.
This result, achieved despite falling behind to an accomplished Charlton Athletic side, saw United move nine points clear at the top of the table and, perhaps more significantly, 10 points ahead of third.
Nevertheless O’Connell, whose goal drew United level after Ricky Holmes’ opener, preferred to talk about another ‘P’ word.
“We have to deal with the pressure and, to be fair, I think the lads have,” he said. We enjoy training every day, coming out to play. You can’t freeze, or crumble under pressure. You have to deal with that pressure, and the gaffer has installed confidence in training to enjoy it.”
That masochistic streak has not only enabled United to negotiate safe passage through a testing sequence of games - they entered Saturday’s contest on the back of victories over Oxford, Swindon Town and second-placed Bolton Wanderers having also drawn with Rochdale - but also proved they key to success here.
Wilder’s team demonstrated plenty of quality, particularly after Daniel Lafferty’s decisive intervention early in the second half, before seeming to derive some sort of perverse pleasure from repelling the visitors’ attacks during the closing stages.
It was a trait Wilder highlighted afterwards, insisting it separates pretenders from “proper players”. It also probably goes some way towards explaining why, despite their impressive record against the division’s leading clubs, Charlton are 31 points further back.
“Credit to Charlton, they are a good team and pass it really well. They posed us some problems,” O’Connell said. “We had to hang on and dig deep to get that win. The fans here expect to win every game, and we have to deal with that pressure. I think we are. Everyone is fighting for different reasons.”
STREET-FIGHTERS AND STYLISTS
While United attempt to claw themselves out of the third tier at the sixth time of asking, Charlton’s players are looking to win berths in Karl Robinson’s starting 11 next term.
The visitors, who unveiled the 36-year-old after November’s draw with United at The Valley, travelled to South Yorkshire unbeaten in their meetings with the top three this term.
They returned home having seen that record shattered, despite confirming Wilder’s suspicions they would prove a much tougher proposition than their league position suggests.
Asked why his side found themselves on the wrong end of a 2-1 scoreline, despite dominating the early exchanges and applying heavy pressure towards the end, Robinson answered and revealed the difference between these two squads.
United possess plenty of skill and classy combinations but are street-fighters at heart. Charlton resemble a fallen champion who has lost the stomach to rebuild their reputation on small-hall shows.
“Here, we played with no fear because we’re used to this environment,” Robinson said. “But we’ve got to find that quality against the teams around us. That’s the key to winning championships and promotions. You need that inner-belief, solidarity and compactness when things aren’t going your way.”
MUCH HEAVIER HANDS
Charlton did not batter United but they certainly tested their resolve, particularly during the early exchanges. Holmes, who lifted the League Two title under Wilder at Northampton Town last term, was a menace throughout. Jake Forster-Caskey dragged the hosts this way and that before fading after the break while Tony Watt’s physical approach initially caused United problems.
Holmes has come a long way since the days he used to pay £5 to play for Southend Manor in the Essex Senior League and swept a superb free-kick past Simon Moore to put Charlton in control. But United’s tenacity won through in the end with first O’Connell and then Lafferty scoring.
“I always thought we would come back,” O’Connell said.