Sunday’s match between Sheffield United and Chesterfield could, with both assured of League One play-off qualification, prove to be a dress rehearsal for the division’s showpiece event on May 24, writes James Shield.
But even if his former employers are destined to meet at Wembley then Wayne Allison, whose career spanned over two decades and nine different clubs, does not believe the outcome will have any bearing on who prevails in three weeks time.
“It won’t make any difference whatsoever,” he told The Star last night. “Whatever happens, despite what anyone else might tell you, it really isn’t going to have any effect.”
Allison speaks from personal experience having been a member of the United team beaten by Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Championship final 12 years ago. Neil Warnock’s side, having reached the last four of the FA and Capital One cups earlier that season, entered the contest boasting a win and a draw from its two previous fixtures with the eventual victors only to succumb 3-0 in front of a 69,473 strong crowd.
“If anything goes to show you can’t ready anything into these results it was that game,” Allison said. “We’d gone down to Molineux in the Autumn and pretty much wiped the floor with them. Then, they came to our ground and we took something from that as well.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t count for anything when we faced Wolves at the Millennium in Cardiff. It’s a different match, a different day and different circumstances.”
Allison joined United from Tranmere Rovers earlier that season before, 91 appearances and 10 goals later, transferring to Saltergate. He featured for Chesterfield a total of 129 times but announced his retirement after a brief spell at Chester. Having subsequently gained a PHD in sports science, Allison is now the Football Association’s Research Manager for Coaching which has seen the 46-year-old assume responsibility for developing “world class” strategies and systems from the organisation’s base at St George’s Park.
“It’s a job I love and we’re making headway,” he said. “We’re looking at how to improve it (coaching) and make it better. If we have better coaches, then hopefully we have better players.”
Predictably, given his present guise, Allison believes Nigel Clough and Paul Cook must also perform to their maximum if United or Chesterfield are to gain promotion this term.
“Everybody has a part to play at times like this but, naturally, they lead from the front,” he said. “The best instructions are always the ones which are clear and concise. Positive also. No matter what the situation, it can be turned around into something positive.
“There can never be any guarantees because sport and football in particular doesn’t work like that. But you can try and tilt things in your favour a little and what they do in terms of getting ready during the build-up will set the tone.”
“They are the ones who will be overseeing the preparation and, from that, setting the tone,” Allison continued. “But everyone can contribute at times like this and it’s vital there’s the right feeling behind the scenes. Clearly, because they’ve both got this far, both clubs have got that.”
United will finish fifth if they avoid defeat against the visitors from the Proact Stadium whose participation in the end of season tournament was also confirmed when Rochdale failed to overcome MK Dons last weekend. Clough’s squad are arguably under greater pressure to succeed given their budget and reputation while the visitors, placed sixth, only waved goodbye to League Two ...months ago.
But the unique demands of the play-offs - “These, essentially are cup games,” Allison insisted - means United are, on paper at least, better equipped to succeed after blazing a trail into the semi-finals of both major domestic knockout competitions following Clough’s appointment in October 2013. Southampton, Queens Park Rangers, Fulham and Aston Villa featured among their victims en route.
“It’s a cliche but it’s true,” Allison said. “You’ve got to play the game and not the occasion and knowing how to do that, or to give your players the best possible opportunity of doing it, is an art in itself.
“One way is just by saying, ‘this is another away match.’ Or creating that type of atmosphere around the camp.
“Don’t do anything different to how you would usually do it. Even though this might be the biggest most important moment of your life. That includes even small and insignificant things such as, if possible, sticking to the same routine you always do or staying in the same hotel.”
With the likes of Matt Done, Ryan Flynn, Jay McEveley and Terry Kennedy nursing injuries, United could choose to deploy a mixture of seasoned campaigners and aspiring young professionals when Chesterfield arrive at Bramall Lane in 48 hours time. Clough, not without good reason, has cited fitness issues as a factor behind his team’s inconsistent progress since August. So, ensuring they do not continue to influence selections is a major priority now.
“Guess what? Football doesn’t always go exactly as you’d like it or expect it too,” Allison said. “Okay, so United might have been tipped to be higher up the table but it’s never that simple because there are always 11 other players out there intent on complicating things.
“It would be great to think that United and Chesterfield could meet at Wembley. It would be brilliant for the area and excite everyone involved. They’ll both want to further but getting this far is an achievement in itself.”