Kevin Gage's Blades Column: Why a 10th-placed finish in the Championship doesn't tell half the story of a fantastic season for Sheffield United
So fellow Blades... before you read this I should really issue a warning. Well, two actually.
Firstly, I’m NOT going to speculate on Chris Wilder’s future, and secondly, if you’re one of the many fans I’ve seen and heard moaning about our perceived ‘bit disappointing’ season, then please stop reading now, because we are MILES apart in our judgement of this campaign!
Let’s get the final stats out the way first. We finished in 10th position. We had a +7 goal difference. We won more league games than we lost. Leicester knocked us out of both cups. Basically, very VERY basically, that’s about it.
But that’s not it really is it? I don’t think the mid-table obscurity of an 10th place final position and the apparent 'averageness' associated with it goes anywhere NEAR telling the story of our season. It implies that we did “OK”. It suggests that we “held our own”. We “consolidated”…. etc etc.
In my opinion, we did far, FAR more than that. From a bit of a stuttering start we soon got into our stride and with unforgettable wins and performances against various local rivals, big-spenders at the top, and seasoned Championship challengers, and we also deservedly topped the league table in late October and early November. It was over those first few months of the season that the football we played at times was truly outstanding. I’d go further than that actually, as in my opinion, and in my experience of nearly 27 years in Sheffield as a Blades player and then a fan, it was the best football I’ve ever witnessed from a Sheffield Utd side in terms of pure footballing quality, style of play, and certainly entertainment value.
That’s a big statement to make, but I mean every word. We’ve had some great seasons in the last 20-30 years admittedly in terms of promotion to the top flight, exciting cup-runs, play-off drama and of course the success of the League One title winning campaign is still fresh in our minds, but for chunks of last season we were grinding out results… Grabbing points with last minute goals v Northampton at home and Fleetwood away, scrapping wins at Coventry and Oxford, edging past the mighty Bury at home 1-0… we even lost three times to Walsall, for God’s sake!
But this season, with largely the same team, the quality of many of our performances hit new heights, AND we were playing against teams with top-quality, multi-million pound players. Most of our top-six rivals (and a few in the lower half) spent tens of millions. We did it by searching the pound shops for bargains, cashing in some Nectar points and using some change Chris found down the back of a sofa in the Platinum Suite! Yet at times, we ran rings around our opponents, usually dominated possession and with a bit more luck coupled (arguably) with a bit better quality of finishing we could have made an even greater impact in this division than we did.
And when I say ‘impact’, we certainly made one as teams had to find ways to combat this seemingly new, fresh, buccaneering approach to attacking play. At home especially, opposition teams looked bewildered at times as our swashbuckling Bladesmen put them to the sword with wave after wave of attacks, throwing men forward from all angles, from all areas, and amazingly from nearly all positions in our team! You expect wing-backs to get forward and join in the attack, but you DON’T expect centre-backs to fly down the touchline and overlap them!
What an absolute joy it was to see Jack O'Connell charging down the left wing like a steam train, chest puffed out, arms and legs pumping like pistons, or Chris Basham surging forward, dropping his shoulder and surging inside through the right-hand channel on an ‘inner-lap’, arriving at full-tilt into the penalty box… Magnificent. Add to that the intricacy, skill and patience to our approach play that saw us sliding passes through gaps to runners and quick, incisive ‘give-and-goes’ in and around the penalty area and you’ll understand my thinking that at times, we were a joy to watch. Simple as that.
We were a breath of fresh air in this division even if our challenge faded a bit after Christmas, and the Sky TV guys obviously though we were good value for their viewers as we were on nearly every week! The loss of Paul Coutts has been cited as a major reason for our apparent loss of form back then, but although it undoubtedly interrupted our rhythm and the flow of our passing a bit, I don’t believe it had the huge effect that some think it did. Having said that, I personally can’t wait to have him back, as he just oozes class and composure and I love watching him zip the ball around as he kept us ticking over.
So roll on next season please, and a personal thank you to everyone connected with the playing side for such a fabulously entertaining season just gone. I believe the players, together with Chris Wilder and his coaching staff, should look back and be rightly very proud of the way they’ve gone about their business and the results they’ve achieved this season. One in particular stands out of course….the one never 2-4get! John Fleck was Player of the Season, but the fact that people were making cases for about half a dozen other potential winners summed up just how good we were. They’ve set high standards now, let’s hope they can reach and maintain them again next season.
And lastly… let’s hope our manager is still here to demand they do. UTB.
Kevin Gage owns The Manor House: bar/hotel/cafe, High St, Dronfield. @ManorHouse_S18. Follow him on Twitter: @gageykev