Is Sheffield United’s dream first season back in the Championship coming to a halt?

As a Blade, this is pretty tough to write – but a team that was top of the table after their 3-1 win at Burton on 17th November have only won once in the past ten league games. They still lie sixth, but mainly because the likes of Leeds, Fulham and Middlesbrough were unable to capitalise on a poor string of form – the dream first season back in the Championship isn’t coming to a grinding halt, is it?

We started the season emphatically, making Bramall Lane a fortress as we won seven of our first eight league games there. There were a few away losses but for a team just promoted after spending 6 seasons in League One we blew everyone away. Then came the first Sheffield derby in five years, and everyone was ready for a very tight game, expecting it to finish 0-0 or 1-0 to either side. Shockingly, Wednesday decided not to turn up. We dominated the game and their few spurs of action did lead to goals, but we beat them 4-2, with ex-Wednesday player Leon Clarke being the hero and netting two against his former club. This momentum continued and after beating Burton 3-1 away we were top of the table.

“This loss seemed to be an anomaly”

The glory was short lived though, as our next game was at home to Fulham, a team in 17th and under-performing as they came to Bramall Lane. However, to much surprise a nine goal thriller was in store. They beat us 5-4, having only scored three goals in their last five games. Fulham were just too quick on the break, but they did play well and United did well to pull it back from 5-2 to score two more. To fans at the time, this loss seemed to be an anomaly. We had conceded five goals in our previous 450 minutes of football, so to have five go in within 90 minutes, at home, was unsettling. The next game was Birmingham City, who have notoriously struggled all season, so we expected a return to previous form. Despite this, having not drawn all season, the game finished 1-1 after Birmingham put United behind, and although the Blades dominated possession, we struggled to create clear chances.

“The team were focusing on the loss of key players”

Following the draw with Brum United lost three on the bounce, losing 3-1 away at Millwall, again struggling for shots as we registered a mere two on target. Then came the cruel 2-1 loss against Bristol City. After creating six shots on target, Lee Johnson (Bristol City’s head coach) stated that we were “outstanding” and showed “relentless quality”. Despite these losses, my dad and I travelled to Deepdale on 16th December quietly confident, still feeling these losses were exceptions and not the rule, and putting our faith once again in Leon Clarke who was electric form with fourteen goals in nineteen games. The faith was once again misplaced. Neither side were particularly threatening, but Preston managed to nick a goal whilst we got an embarrassing one shot on target. We didn’t have the fight that I’ve seen us show so often at the Lane and it seems the team were focusing more on the loss of key players such as Coutts and Fleck rather than how to adapt the side to try for a win without them.

Things seemed to pick up, drawing 2-2 at Aston Villa and beating Sunderland 3-0 on boxing day. However, we have not found the consistency we had at the start of the season and we lost miserably to Bolton, who were in the bottom three when they took home all the points from the Lane. On New Year’s Day we played extremely well at second placed Derby, holding them to a draw. 2018 has also seen us progress to the fourth round of the FA Cup, the the second derby at Bramall Lane. With Wednesday getting a new manager and their rivals embarrassing them at Hillsborough, we knew they’d come to us with some fight. It was a tight game and how we’d imagined the first derby to play out, with few chances. It was a shame not to put a goal past ten men after Glenn Loovens got sent off, but there was a promising performance from new signing James Wilson who came off the bench and created some chances.

We are still missing our captain Coutts in the midfield, but he’s out for the whole season and we need to find a new system to maximise the qualities of our players. Despite this, we are still 6th and for a team who have just come out of League 1 after six years, that is extremely impressive. I don’t know how far we can go this season, but Wilder has said that he wants to take second or be in the play-offs. Even if we don’t make it to the play-offs, finishing above Wednesday will be sweet, and that’s looking more and more likely as now we have a comfortable 12 point cushion. Only time will tell, but at the start of the season even finishing in the top half of the table would have been welcomed by many fans. 

Zoe Burgess

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