Kevin Gage's Blades Column: Why the Coventry debacle shows Sheffield United have the bottle for promotion
I'm sure you've heard this line before as its often used to as a barometer of a good footballing team's effectiveness when the going gets a bit tough.
It goes something like: “ah, but can they do it on a cold Tuesday night at Crewe/Carlisle/Colchester?" In the Premier League it’s the kind of question Arsenal used to get regularly asked when visiting a Stoke team managed by Tony Pulis, and maybe still do when on their way to West Brom.
In League One, if we swop the words Tuesday for Thursday, and the teams mentioned above for Coventry, then we have a question that was asked of our Blades side last week. And as we all know, I’m happy to say that the answer to that question was a big fat “YES”.
I was at the game as a Radio Sheffield co-commentator and therefore witnessed first-hand the extraordinary atmosphere and events that unfolded on Thursday night. A game that appeared so straightforward against a side that had lost its last five games, turned into a real test of character, nerve and self-belief.
The ref’s whistle for kick-off seemed to be the catalyst for many hundreds of other whistles from the stands, and the noise it generated was quite amazing and to be honest, quite unnerving. I’ve never played in or witnessed an atmosphere like it, and it can’t have helped either team on the pitch. It was also compounded by playing in a virtually empty stadium as the 6,000 fans looked lost among the 32,000 seats in the Ricoh Arena.
Add in the missiles, pitch invasions and the pockets of fighting high in the stands as tensions grew and you’ll get the picture, although as it was also on Sky TV, you probably saw it as well!
On the pitch, after a slow start we got our noses in front due to the opportunism of Billy Sharp once again, but in truth we never really pushed on and dominated proceedings as we normally do. The hard uneven pitch didn’t help our passing game at all, and the line markings on it told even the most untrained eye that it was also being used by a rugby club.
(Note to SUFC: Don’t ever be tempted to ground share Bramall Lane with anyone, of any sport. We have a perfect pitch. Lets keep it as such).
Whether it was because of the home fans noise, or the TV cameras, or just maybe because the Blades were in town, the Coventry side certainly didn’t play like a team who were in freefall. They actually caused us a few problems with their strong front-running and willingness to compete all over the park. But this Blades side can cope with most things thrown at it these days, and when the going did get a bit tough, we got going.
We still managed to get 17 shots at goal to their nine so it was actually no more than we deserved and at the risk of being labelled a Chris Wilder super-fan, I’m going to credit him, and Alan Knill alongside him, for making some crucial changes that swung the game our way in the second half and proved to be decisive.
Firstly, Matty Done had another one of those games where he didn’t really look as if he was going to score - and not for the want of trying or running either. Caolan Lavery replaced him with half an hour to go and made a real impact with his control and trickery around Coventry’s penalty area. He manoeuvered himself into two identical positions within the space of a few minutes and was incredibly unlucky to see his curling shots hit the outside of the same post on both occasions!
But the key change was a more radical one, and the most telling as it turned out. A scrappy, midfield battle was never going to be the best conditions for Paul Coutts to show his class, and as his influence waned, we changed to a 4-4-2 system, Chris Basham went into midfield and Leon Clarke went on from the bench to partner Billy. Horses for courses and all that. From that moment on, the only question was would we get the decisive winner as for the last 10-15 minutes it was one-way traffic towards the Coventry goal. Billy answered that question for us, as he often tends to do these days!
So, the answer is yes. The question asked was can we do it at Coventry on a cold Thursday night? The answer is also yes to many other questions such as: Are the players adaptable when need be? Can the management see what needs to be changed in the heat of the battle? Do the players believe in themselves, their team mates, and the manager? Are we good enough to maintain our form of the past four months for the next four?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Here’s another question. Do I think we’ll get promotion? Yes... A big fat one!
Kevin Gage owns The Manor House: bar/hotel/cafe, High St, Dronfield, S18. @ManorHouse_S18. Follow him on Twitter: @gageykev