In the middle of last November, The Star asked correspondents from other local newspapers and radio stations what they thought of Sheffield United.
At the time United were vying with Wolves and Cardiff City for the top three places. I noted two particular comments and wondered which of them might prove closer to the mark as the season progressed.
Paul Taylor of the Nottingham Post said: “Sheffield United are one of the best sides to have visited the City Ground this season, even if Forest managed to battle their way to a narrow win. Some of the football the Blades played was superb. They will be up there by the end of the campaign, still.”
On the other hand, Tom Marshall-Bailey of Leeds Live said: “I expect Sheffield United to eventually fizzle away.”
At the time I wondered what the Leeds guy was talking about, especially as United had beaten his team at Elland Road a couple of weeks earlier. Everything was going well and, unusually for Blades fans, optimism was unbounded. The week after The Star’s article United won at Burton and went top for 24 hours. But we all know what else happened that night.
Since then United’s record has been more bottom than top, despite the fact that we have played well in most matches. Misfortune has also played a part. Hitting the woodwork four times against Bristol City, mistakes such as the one by CC-V against Fulham, great displays by opposition goalkeepers, Leon Clarke’s loss of potency and wonder goals scored by Bristol, Villa and Wolves cannot all be put down to Paul Coutts’ broken leg.
What we’ve actually witnessed since November is a classic case of an underestimated underdog surprising the opposition but being unable to maintain its form to the end of the event. Remember as Hull City going 2-0 up against Arsenal early in the 2014 FA Cup final but losing 3-2, or Newcastle United leading the Premier League by 12 points in January 1996 before being famously overhauled by Manchester United?
It happens in other sports too, for example the Atlanta Falcons blowing a 25-point lead in the 2017 Superbowl, or Jean Van de Velde, who led the 1999 Open by three strokes going down the last hole but shot a disastrous seven to eventually lose out in a play-off.
But there are other stories of frontrunners stumbling to apparent failure and coming back strongly at the end, such as Mo Farah falling in the final of the 10,000m at the Rio Olympics and getting up to win, or Barcelona beating PSG 6-5 in the 2016/17 Champions League by scoring three times in the last five minutes.
Of course, United aren’t in the Mo Farah or Barcelona class, but there’s no reason why they can’t pick it up again and finish well. With a run of games to the end of March against teams below us (except Fulham) there’s every chance that United can keep up their challenge for the top six.