It’s been a tough few seasons for Sheffield United. Relegated in 2011, they came agonisingly close to going straight back up the next year, and again lost out in the playoffs in 2013.
Missing out on the playoffs altogether after a miserable run of form in the early part of the 2013/14 season, they nevertheless recovered to finish 7th, a respectable season in the end given their aforementioned poor start. 2014/15 was cruel as well, a season in which they again finished comfortably in the playoff places and again could not quite make it over the line, losing in the semi final to Swindon after a crazy second leg which ended 6-5.
In chronological order Danny Wilson, Chris Morgan, David Weir and Nigel Clough have all tried and failed to get the Steel City club back to what is surely the level its fans should expect, the Championship.
Now under Nigel Adkins, who has history of taking teams into the Championship, notably with Southampton and twice with Scunthorpe (the team where he notably started his post-playing career as a physio), and with several of their much-vaunted young guns now having experience at this level, is this the year when promotion stops being a just-out-of-reach dream and turns into reality?
The young guns I’ve just mentioned will play a massive part if a successful push for the automatic promotion spots is to be sustained into the spring. Striker Che Adams, who made such an impression against Spurs in the League Cup last year, midfielder Lewis Reed (who already looks an island of composure in the midst of a sea of hurly-burly action in the middle of the park) and others including Kieran Wallace and Callum McFadzean all look set to play a big part in their season.
Last year it was clear that these young players of whom so much is expected definitely have the quality, the trick for them now is to turn that into consistent performances that never fluctuate too much – always a tough task for young players. Reed and Adams in particular made the headlines last year, and it’s important they keep firmly rooted to the ground, not paying too much attention to the headlines that may well come their way and just continuing to turn in stellar performances.
The manager will also be under scrutiny this year. After what many perceived to be an extremely harsh dismissal at Southampton (which now looks like possibly a good decision in the end), Adkins took over the reins at Reading. For a whole host of reasons which have already been debated endlessly, it just didn’t work out for him at the Madejski and the axe fell last December. Now back in the league which he has already taken sides out of three times, Adkins will be feeling the pressure to get the old magic from his days on the south coast back.
He has already brought one of his favourites, Billy Sharp, to Bramall Lane, and has at his disposal what is surely one of the best squads in the league, with a blend of experience (Martyn Woolford and Jose Baxter amongst others), pace, youth and born winners. However, if there is a patch throughout the season when results do not go his way, it’s vital that the board still stick with him – promotion after changing the manager is notoriously difficult.
The signing of Sharp could be a particularly good one to watch for Blades fans, a proven goalscorer at Championship level who is still in the prime of his career and has a great relationship. There really does seem to be no obvious downside to his move from Leeds. As the main striker ably supported by tricky wingers like Matty Done and Martyn Woolford, Sharp should expect plenty of service – if he takes enough of it, this could be a very fruitful season indeed for the ex-Saints man.
The point here is not that Sheffield United are bound to go up this year, or even that Adkins will personally drag them up the football league – it is simply that with the combination of Adkins, experience in their ranks, and the young players previously mentioned, all the ingredients have been assembled for a successful season.
The trick now is to combine them properly.