Nine games left to save a season. Thirteen and-a-half hours of tense, nervous football with the power to turbo-charge or irrevocably tarnish, in the eyes of many at Bramall Lane, entire careers.
Little wonder, when Billy Sharp surveyed the League One table ahead of this afternoon’s meeting with Crewe Alexandra, he accepted Sheffield United’s campaign has reached a critical point.
“There’s no room for error now. We need to get a run and some momentum going because we are still in with a chance. But, yes, there’s been far to many ‘what ifs’ and ‘buts’.”
If points were on offer for missed opportunities then, as their leading marksman acknowledged during a break in training on Tuesday, would already be celebrating promotion to the Championship. Instead, after finding themselves on the wrong end of a narrow 1-0 scoreline at fifth-placed Millwall last weekend, they enter the game against Steve Davis’ side six behind Barnsley who occupy the fourth and final play-off berth. That defeat, United’s third in five outings, saw clear blue and white water emerge between the visitors and their rivals from London. It also, as Sharp admitted during a break in training at the Steelphalt Academy, only served to crank-up the pressure on Nigel Adkins’ already browbeaten squad.
“Going into the last game against Millwall, I thought we needed a point to keep them sucked in,” Sharp said. “Now, I think you are looking at one place now, one place with seven teams going for it. But you never ever know. Millwall might start slipping up and we might put that run together.”
Sharp, who recently turned 30, has been around the block enough times to know that funny things happen at this stage of the campaign. A closer analysis of recent results suggests there will be a plenty of twists, turns and torn-up betting slips yet with Rochdale currently leading the form guide while United are 15th, Bradford City 10th and Coventry City, only a few months ago regarded as shoe-ins for a top six finish, languishing in 21st.
“You see it every season in every division, someone goes on a run in all the leagues,” Sharp said. “Look at Barnsley. We were above them before Christmas, they’ve put together a great string of results and we are trying to catch them now. But it shows it can be done. Every year, somebody charges through at this stage and we have to make sure that, in this division, it’s us.”
Given that the only thing consistent about United this season is their inconsistency, piecing together back to back victories will prove easier said than done.
But Sharp, who has won promotions under Adkins and both Southampton and Scunthorpe, believes the sombre mood music now reverberating around Bramall Lane might actually play into their hands.
“It’s the pressure part of the season. People aren’t expecting us to get in there now. And that might be a good thing. We still believe we can but others probably don’t.
“At home, we’ve found it tough when teams sit back and look to be hard to break down. If we score early, then we control the game usually and do well. So it’s frustrating when we don’t. We should be a lot higher with the quality we’ve got. But Chelsea should be a lot higher in the Premier League too. We know we haven’t been good enough but at least we’ve got a chance to put it right. The club isn’t going to disappear or fold if we are still in League One but yes, we’ve been in here far too long and we are the ones who can get us out.
“We’ve got a lot of teams above us coming up now. If we can win those games then we are taking three points ourselves and three of them as it were. It’s still do’able.”
Adkins has been keen to emphasise the importance of collective responsibility since taking charge in June. Echoing that sentiment, Sharp, who has scored 16 goals in his last 39 outings, said:
I would have liked to have scored more than I have done. The other two seasons I’ve had in League One I got 32 and 24. I still believe I’ll get 20 plus. Once I get to 20, anything else is a bonus. We’ve not won more than four on the trot and we’ve got to do better than that now.
We’ve not been consistent enough and not won as many games at home as we should have done. That means, when we go away, we are chasing it whereas it should be the other way around. Win you home games and look to take something away.”
Despite their well-documented difficulties, Sharp insisted there have been numerous success stories at United too. Most notably the sight of yet more players, Ben Whiteman and Graham Kelly included, forcing themselves into the senior squad.
“The latest young lad to come through was Ben,” Sharp, who also progressed through United’s youth system, said. “I thought he did brilliant against Oldham recently and he’ll be a good player, like the others, that’s for sure. “It’s great to see them do it because it gives a positive vibe for the club and the whole squad. I’ve been there myself and it’s hard. You want the older lads to help you through. It’s different to when I was younger and these lads have got a lot of confidence which you need.
“It was different when I was younger because the older lads used to give the young ones a lot more stick than they get now.”
Crewe, in 23rd, travel to South Yorkshire without a win in eight but beat United at Gresty Road five months ago.
“We are playing a team who are struggling but you saw what happened when we last played them,” Sharp said. “That can’t happen again. If we get that win, then we can be confident going forward. We need to be consistent for whole games, not just one half.”