Nigel Clough leaned forward and gave his inquisitor a cold, hard stare, writes James Shield.
“Of course we want to finish strongly. Why wouldn’t that be the case?
“We might only have a mathematical chance of getting inside the top six but, even if we don’t, then we’d like to get seventh place.
“Get as high as we possibly can in the table. That’s our aim.”
Sheffield United, as Clough made abundantly clear during yesterday’s media briefing, might have little tangible to play for between now and the end of the season following last weekend’s FA Cup semi-final defeat by Hull City. But they are obliged to ensure a campaign of contrasts does not peter-out. Both in terms of professional pride and to protect the integrity of a competition which pits them against two teams battling against relegation over the Bank Holiday weekend.
“Clubs, right the way through, are still battling for something,” Clough said. “And we are fighting too.
“Acknowledging that is of paramount importance. If we were in trouble, for example, we wouldn’t appreciate it if people took it easy against those around us.
“But, from our own perspective, it’s important that we still give everything too because momentum at this stage can make a massive difference next season. It sets the tone.
“If you end on a high then you can’t wait to come back into work again. You remember all the good things you’ve done and are excited about picking-up where you’ve left off.”
On paper Stevenage, who arrive at Bramall Lane this evening propping-up the rest of the division and without a win in eight outings, should prove easy pickings for a team positioned comfortably in mid-table after tasting defeat only three times since February 1. In practice, however, they are likely to be anything but.
The visitors have scored four goals and conceded none in their previous two meetings with United and made the journey north last night under orders from manager Graham Westley to start on the “front foot.”
“We’re still sore about what happened (at Wembley) because we felt we had a chance,” Clough continued. “But feeling like that just goes to show how far we’ve come.
“One of the things which has made us all feel better though is the amount of letters and emails we’ve received from supporters. We appreciate all of them because it means people have taken the time to write.
“The theme of them all is that they were proud of the players and what they achieved on the way there. We want that feeling to continue.”
“One of the things that I’ll always take with me from that game (against Hull) was the reaction of our supporters to their fifth goal,” Clough added. “They started chanting for our players and kept on applauding right the way through until the end.
“It’s always important to have a bond like that between a team and it’s supporters. It can be a powerful force.
“One thing I always say is that supporters should never, ever, underestimate the effect they can have on a team.”
United, who face 19th placed Tranmere Rovers on Monday, were 19th after drawing 0-0 at the Lamex Stadium in December. However, having averaged 1.75 points per game since, they are now 11th and would be fifth - three ahead of seventh - if the campaign had started following Clough’s appointment 36 fixtures ago.
But, having seen City end their hopes of reaching the FA Cup final on Sunday, tonight’s contest represents a huge test of character for a squad which, by their manager’s own admission, must now start laying the groundwork for a concerted assault on promotion next term.
“We’ve made some improvements but there is still a lot to do,” Clough, confirming that Bob Harris and Stefan Scougall should both feature against Stevenage, said. “Our planning has already started but the players must focus completely on the game ahead.
“As a staff, we’ve been looking at one or two things for a while now.
“But our target as a team is to break that 70 point barrier. When you think that, not so long ago, we’d have been delighted to get 50 shows what the players have achieved but we want to continue moving forward.”