Sheffield United: Blades stronger for the heartache

Blades keeper Mark Howard
Blades keeper Mark Howard

Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough has predicted his squad will be even more battle-hardened next season after experiencing heartbreak in the League One play-offs.

United’s hopes of a return to the Championship ended at the semi-final stage following a 7-6 aggregate defeat by Swindon Town.

Clough, acknowledging mistakes had been made en route to the County Ground, also cited John Brayford’s absence as a factor behind the visitors’ failure to qualify for yesterday’s divisional showpiece against Preston North End.

With injuries to Mark Howard and Bob Harris further accentuating the defensive issues which cast a shadow over United’s promotion bid, Clough has placed a centre-half at the top of this summer’s recruitment list.

He told The Star: “Some of the lads won’t have played as many games in a season before as they’ve just come through. It was probably catching up with some towards the end a little bit, which is understandable.

“They’ll be all the stronger for it when we get ready to go again. Physically and psychologically, what happened will drive them on.”

Howard was troubled by a back complaint during the closing stages of a campaign which saw him make a total of 50 senior appearances; seven more than the United goalkeeper had accumulated during his previous three seasons in the game.

Harris, meanwhile, was deployed on 57 occasions.

“They’ll benefit from the rest, without a doubt,” Clough said. “It will do them the power of good.

“What you’ve got to remember is that, when you are at this football club, it’s not only demanding on the body, it can also be demanding mentally too.

“That’s not an excuse and I’m not referring to anyone individually. But, after going through everything together as a group, we’ll be even tighter and stronger this time around.”

United played 63 games in all competitions last term. Clough is plotting several forways into the transfer market when English football reopens for business on July 1, but nothing on the scale Bramall Lane witnessed 12 months ago.

Clough said: “We are in much better shape than this time last year.”

A centre-forward and deputy for Howard - United are keen to arrange another loan spell for George Long - are other priorities.

Motherwell, who signed 21-year-old Long on loan in February, would be Clough’s preferred destination although York City could enter the race if Ian Baraclough’s side fails to secure its Scottish Premiership status. They face Rangers over two legs shortly.