As the final whistles blew around the League One grounds last Saturday, Sheffield United were bracing themselves for possibly three extra games they would not even have envisaged having to play only last month.
As the story spread that Ched Evans would not play a part in United’s final three games of the season, it seems everyone feared the worst. In pure football terms, it was the biggest of sucker punches, to think that a striker who had been so prolific throughout the season would not be there to see out the campaign. As a result, United failed to win any of their last three games, losing firstly away to MK Dons, before two back to back two all draws at home to Stevenage and away to Exeter.
It was the game sandwiched in the middle that would turn out to be the most intriguing, as sixth place Stevenage hosts the first leg of the playoff semi-final first leg against the Blades on Friday night. There was an air of optimism around Bramall Lane in the final home game of the season, with the majority of a near sell-out crowd believing that United would be too much for Stevenage. Nothing could have been further from what played out in front of the 30,000 crowd. United lacked rhythm and movement, whilst Stevenage only grew on confidence as the crowd began to grow anxious. Getting men behind the ball was their main focus, then when in possession relinquishing the wingers in speedy counter attacks. It worked to a tee, with Stevenage two up before the hour, and United’s hopes of automatic promotion slipping away in front of them.
A late onslaught from United mixed with urgency and purpose, managed to pull two back to draw level, but the decisive goal did not come. The game finished with both teams taking a share of the spoils, and the droves of Blades exiting Bramall Lane knew that the playoffs were now the only hope, as no one could see rivals Wednesday losing to lowly Wycombe at home the following weekend. Lose the didn’t, and Wednesday took the last remaining automatic place to leave United in third, by a bigger margin than anticipated, as United could only manage a point in Devon, conceding in the last minute of the game.
A win at Exeter would have been a huge welcome to the Blades, as a win would have brought back a bit of confidence before the playoffs started. However, it was another incident which may prove to be a deciding factor. The dismissal of James Beattie in the first half could prove mighty costly for United. When he came on in the closing stages against Stevenage the week before, he looked strong and athletic, hassling defenders and winning every header aimed at him. The Stevenage back line did not know how to come with him, and in receiving a straight red in Devon, he will miss all the playoff games. In my own opinion, it was never a red card and the referee was way too hasty to stamp his authority on the situation. Replays show Beattie, although going in with two feet, clearly got the entire ball and none of the man; but when players roll on the floor like they have been shot there is little a referee can do.
United now have a choice of three strikers in Cresswell, Porter, and O’Halloran. My pick would be the first two, as I personally see the latter as being a pacey winger. For Friday, I believe Danny Wilson needs to set up 4-5-1 to make sure the midfield battle is won, and the break quickly to support the lone striker, who in all probability will be Cresswell. The Stevenage pitch is small and narrow, making it difficult to play the ball around, which United like to do back at Bramall Lane. United may need to scrap for a result down in Hertfordshire, and a draw would be a satisfactory result to take back to Bramall Lane.
Starting from now, all roads must lead to Wembley on May 26th, and the beginning of the playoff journey must begin with a result on Friday night.
By Sheffield United blogger Will Ollett