OF all the teams in all the world it just had to be Scunthorpe.
As Sheffield United look to reassert their authority towards the top of the League One table after a chastening derby defeat, this evening’s visitors to Bramall Lane would definitely not be the South Yorkshire club’s first choice of opponents.
Despite finding themselves embroiled in a desperate battle for survival, Alan Knill’s side have developed an uncanny knack of denting United’s pride in recent seasons.
And tonight Scunthorpe will make the short journey down the M18 looking to dump another great dollop of misery on Danny Wilson’s shoulders.
“We don’t listen to what anyone else says about them,” the United manager said.
“We prefer to rely on what we know about them professionally.
“They’ve got some strong characters there and some good players who are capable of winning football matches.
“But exactly the same goes for us too.”
Nevertheless, Scunthorpe’s recent record at this stadium will have made unpleasant reading for Wilson and his staff when they applied the finishing touches to their preparations for United’s 40th game of the campaign yesterday.
United have suffered five defeats and conceded 16 goals in eight previous meetings with their near neighbours.
Indeed, Scunthorpe were last beaten at Bramall Lane in November 1983 when efforts from Tony Philliskirk (2), Gary Brazil, Colin Morris and Keith Edwards propelled the hosts to a 5-3 win.
Ominously, despite a wretched start to the season after being relegated alongside United last term, they have become a much more obdurate proposition of late, winning three and drawing four since being beaten by manager Alan Knill’s former employers Bury in December.
The injection of experience provided by recent acquisitions such as Christian Ribeiro and Jon Parkin has coincided with that upturn in results.
United, of course, enter the game looking to prove Wilson’s assertion that losing Sunday’s Steel City showdown at Hillsborough will not overshadow their promotion bid.
“In a sense I’m delighted the derbies are now out of the way,” Wilson, whose team are second in the table, said. “Because we can both now focus on our real target, which is going up.
more disappointed (by the 1-0 loss) than the players and myself. We realise what those derbies mean.
“But they’re not the be all and end all even if they seem that way at the time. We’ll be looking to repay our fans in a different way come May.”
“Even if we had won then Scunthorpe would still have been a hugely important game,” Wilson added.
“It’s at the end of the season when we will all be judged and not before.
“Anyone who starts doing that now is probably being a bit foolish. There’s a long way to go and a lot of points to play for.
“We’re still in a strong position and we want to make sure that’s still the case after this one.”
With a strained hamstring again ruling Kevin McDonald out of action, United must find other ways of unpicking a Scunthorpe defence which has only been breached five times in its previous five outings.
Despite rubbishing claims that Michael Doyle and Nick Montgomery are too similar to form an effective midfield partnership - “They’re both experienced players. Of course they can play together” - Wilson could be tempted to deploy Will Hoskins behind strikers Richard Cresswell and Ched Evans.
The on-loan centre-forward was ostensibly signed to be United’s ‘fox in the box’.
But Hoskins’ positional sense means he could also be asked to spread a veneer of creativity across an area of United’s team which, despite making a bright start, unravelled alarmingly during the second half of Sunday’s skirmish with Sheffield Wednesday.
Wilson was understandably coy when it came to divulging details of any tactical re-organisation during his pre-match media briefing. But he was quick to dismiss concerns that events over the weekend had punctured the self-belief of his squad.
“I thought a few of the lads might need a bit of a chivvy-up,” Wilson said. “I thought I might have to give them a lift but I haven’t.
“They’ve looked absolutely fine to me out there on the training ground and they’ve always responded well in the past mentally.
“I’d certainly back them in that regard from what I’ve seen at the moment. But the acid test will be how they respond (against Scunthorpe).”
“Scunthorpe will be a tough game because they don’t have the safety net of being in midtable,” added Wilson.
One to watch
David Mirfin. Signed for Watford last year but has returned to Scunthorpe on loan until the end of the season. Born in Sheffield, the no-nonsense defender could find himself playing against the club he supported as a boy this evening.
Scunthorpe boast an excellent record against Sheffield United in recent seasons. Indeed, they average a return of 2.43 points per game against the South Yorkshire club since September 2007. They have also scored, on average, over two goals during their meetings with United over the same period.