Who thought top six was the summit for Sheffield United this season? Hands up. Well, here’s two for starters.
As the manager of the Blades well knows, I reckoned simply on the play-offs, feeling it was the limit.
Partly, it was from not wishing to put unfair pressure on the productivity of one of the Championship’s lower budgets. And it was also to reflect the reality – which still applies – that top six would be a fine achievement in itself.
But I’ve revised my view recently and not only because of the relentless continuity of promotion form – or the January recruitment that has added quality options in personnel and tactics ahead of the big one with Leeds at Elland Road on Saturday.
No, it’s simply a matter of belief. Some teams have it, others don’t, especially at the business end of the season.
Do you see this team cracking up? At the risk of tempting fate, I absolutely don’t.
If that were to happen, there was a moment last month that could have triggered a collapse. It was on Friday, February 8th; the madcap 12 minutes in which Aston Villa scored three late goals to limit arguably the Blades’ best performance of the season to a bizarre 3-3 draw.
It was then that, if any self-belief was lacking, it would have been exposed. After all, inexplicable individual errors in the heat of battle were responsible.
Instead, the response has been nerveless. If anything, a hardening of resolve to show the world that it really was a one-off.
In six unbeaten games since, United have not conceded a single goal. And not a one at Bramall Lane in a second tier record-equalling seven successive home league wins without conceding. This is what the Blades take to Elland Road on Saturday.
Thomas Frank, of a beaten Brentford against the ten men following Gary Madine’s red card on Tuesday, unhesitatingly agreed that this is the stuff of success. Glib platitudes are one thing; his emphatic expectation that United would go up was something else.
Wilder talks of an old-fashioned willingness to get bodies in the way of shots, to do the dirty work instinctively and gladly, as being at the heart of this sequence. “It’s an art that’s going out of the game,” he says. “We’ve got proper defenders who want to stop crosses and stick their head on the ball. If we’re going to be successful they’re going to have to do plenty more of that.”
It’s not to be under-estimated. Watch Premier League analysis any weekend to witness extravagantly paid performers not tracking back, losing their markers or simply switching off. Look at the PSG defender who turned his back for that controversial Champions League penalty to Manchester United last week.
You don’t see that in this side; nor do you see any lack of bottle on the ball.
Managers often talk of courage as being more mental than physical on the creative part of the game; of having the inner confidence to make something happen. United’s key performers, whether raiders from the back or further upfield, all have this. Every one of them is prepared to take that responsibility. There is no quaking from this team, nor do you expect to see any between now and the end of the season.
Whether they can get the required results is another matter. But with this sort of application, attitude and belief guaranteed, I have changed my mid-season view.
Had a fiver on it with a disbelieving pal in the pub last Sunday. I think United have what it takes to go all the way.