Alan Biggs at Large: The reasons behind Sheffield United's likely play-off absence... but fans should still look upon season as a positive one
The final home league game of any season is always a good barometer. I'll be amazed if Sheffield United are met with anything other than the warmest acclaim on Saturday.
And rightly so.
Sadly, barring an unimaginable twist, the visit of erstwhile play-off rivals Preston will be more of a curtain-down affair. And the numerous missed opportunities of the last few weeks have sparked the first, albeit scattered, murmurings of dissent over certain selections and tactics.
Generally these are unjustified and unrealistic, although not necessarily without some basis for debate. Throwing David Brooks into the fray up front, as Chris Wilder will have felt he had to do with a player of such special talent, has not had the desired impact.
He’s performed better in a stretched game as substitute. Leaving a marksman as proven as Billy Sharp on the bench has puzzled a fair few.
However, the simple reason for United falling short is that they have not been quite good enough as a group, while still far out-performing the manager’s budget. Anything else is nit-picking, including talk of jettisoning any of the players who have turned out regularly. For me, they all have a part to play in the future.
In no doubt is that every one of them has given absolutely everything, having a right good go individually and collectively. And looking at the age of most, they have their best years in front of them.
Paul Coutts has obviously been a huge miss. In a modest player’s own words, his horrifying broken leg in November “left the lads in shock and lost a bit of momentum” for a side then top.
But Coutts doesn’t feel “it has had that big an impact as people say it has” and is quick to add: “I think we’d have taken a dip anyway. We’d have done unbelievably well to stay up there.”
There can be so much to look forward to from a simple, logical progression of Wilder’s methods – providing the boat is not rocked by the club’s ongoing ownership battle.
Of which we are bound to hear plenty more. That is a subject for after the weekend send-off - when I imagine a privately disaffected boss will quite justifiably have something to say.
The focus now has to be on the faint possibility of taking the top-six fight to the very last day at Bristol City. Who wouldn’t have taken that back in August?
I doubt if the fans’ appreciation will be diminished unduly by a slide, in results, rather than performances, bringing only three wins in 12 matches.
Win, lose or draw, the entertainment has been rich from a side with an ultra-positive approach. Some have criticised Wilder for not being more cautious and refusing to sit on leads, but that is not what made United competitive in this league in the first place.
It’s fitting that the last league encounter at Bramall Lane is win or bust for both sides. You can guarantee that United players won’t leave anything out on the pitch. And I think supporters will reflect that in a salute of what this manager and these players have achieved.