London calling or another season in League One?
The next 90 minutes of football will decide.
Sheffield United enter tonight’s play-off semi-final second-leg with Swindon Town as rank outsiders following Thursday’s controversial defeat at Bramall Lane.
But, as manager Nigel Clough explained, it would be a mistake to dismiss their chance of reaching Wembley just yet.
“What gives us belief is the performance and the fact that ourselves and others have done it,” he said. “We’ve gone to Aston Villa and won, we’ve gone to QPR and won. We also performed very well at Spurs.
“We performed well enough again to suggest that we’re good enough to get a result.
“We’re in a nowt to lose situation. We’re behind, we know what we’ve got to do. Give it a go.”
United must produce a dynamic yet disciplined performance at the County Ground if they are to overturn a 2-1 deficit and keep their dream of a return to the Championship alive. The type, Clough acknowledged during his pre-match briefing, which has recently served them so well in both the FA and Capital One cups.
“We were up and at ‘em. It was rousing. Everything we wanted it to be,” Clough, reflecting on Thursday evening’s first-leg, said. “And we created so many chances, we can’t believe that we’ve only came off with one goal.
“We need to replicate that now, again, away from home. Which we’ve done before.
“Apart from the end of the first half and then around their goal, we were in control.”
“I was delighted with how we came on strong at the end,” Clough added. “Against a team like Swindon, you are going to have a spell when they have the ball more.
“But you dig-in and then come back again. That’s what we did. Hang on in there and get back on top.”
United, who took the lead courtesy of Kieron Freeman’s first-half strike before efforts from Sam Ricketts and Nathan Byrne put Swindon in the box seat, expressed concerns about referee Darren Bond’s stewardship of last week’s contest. Having listened to the Lancastrian’s interpretation of “four key” incidents he argued helped to influence the course of an absorbing game, including Jamie Murphy’s failed penalty appeal and Matt Done’s disallowed goal, Clough subsequently placed them on record during a conversation with David Allison, the PGMOL’s National Group Manager.
“We told the players in the dressing room, try and retain this feeling,” Clough continued. “Bottle it and keep it for two or three days. That sense of injustice. We’re honest enough, as a staff, to hold our hands up, to say we could have done this or that but they were better than us on the day. The lads didn’t deserve that, though. They didn’t deserve to lose.”
United’s coaching staff, as Clough acknowledged, will attempt to exploit that sense of grievance this evening. But, despite calling for more of the same in broad brush terms, the former England international is aware they must demonstrate greater attention to detail too.
“It’s always disappointing to concede from a corner,” Clough, dissecting Rickett’s equaliser, said. “It’s been a problem all season.
“It’s difficult to rectify it after so many games but all we can do is keep highlighting it and working on it. It has afflicted us all season. Sometimes you get away with it.
“It seems like, every time we lose a man, the opposition score. People have got to take care of their own jobs.
“No mistakes if possible.”
The history books make uncomfortable reading for United as they attempt to gain their first promotion via the play-offs at the seventh attempt. But, on this occasion, they are a source of encouragment too. Some of United’s most effective displays - against Bristol City and Barnsley - have come away from home this term. Intriguingly, they have never reached the final of an end-of-season knockout competition after winning the first-leg.
With John Brayford scheduled to undergo a late fitness test, Clough could be forced to deploy Chris Basham alongside Jay McEveley at centre-half although Craig Alcock, previously of Peterborough, represents an alternative option should the he prefer to keep the summer signing from Blackpool in midfield. Matt Done, who impressed as a second-half substitute during the first-leg, is poised to be handed a more prominent role. “Matt Done wasn’t quite fit enough to start (the first-leg),” Clough said. “He’s in contention now, he’s got a chance down there.
“He livened things up and his touch was excellent. We still don’t know why he had a goal disallowed.
“The ref’s explanation was that he tripped their player. There’s no contact between their legs whatsoever.”
“I don’t know how Swindon will approach it mentally,” Clough added. “But I do know we got about them and everything, in the first-half especially, went as we wanted it to.
“It was a blow losing Chris out of midfield because he was instrumental in getting us on the front foot.”
SWINDON TOWN (Possible): Foderingham; Stephens, N Thompson, Turnbull; Byrne, Kasim, Luongo, Gladwin, Randall; Williams, Hylton.
SHEFFIELD UNITED (Possible): Howard, Harris, McEveley, Alcock, Freeman, Basham, Coutts, Done, Murphy, Flynn, S Davies.
THE REFEREE Keith Hill: