It was just one short sentence and, quite possibly, a simple slip of the tongue.
But even though he corrected himself after straying into the past tense, Mark Duffy appeared to concede Sheffield United’s play-off campaign is over following this damaging defeat at St Andrews.
“In my eyes it’s nothing but disappointment,” he admitted. “I don’t want pats on the back for finishing 10th, 11th or whatever. We had an opportunity to finish in them. For me, we should be in there.”
Chris Wilder thought he had identified exactly why United, despite producing some exhilarating football since returning to the Championship, had travelled to Birmingham City with ground to make up in the race for the Premier League. Unfortunately for him, and at the worst possible moment, his team discovered a new way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Although the gap separating them from sixth-placed Millwall is still only three points, with four clubs now standing between United and the Londoners, there is probably too much traffic, too many obstacles to negotiate, for a crack at back-to-back promotions to remain a realistic target.
“There was a lack of fight,” Duffy, after seeing Marc Roberts and Jacques Maghoma cancel out his first-half effort, said. “Especially after the break when they seemed to have more desire. It’s the hardest thing to take as a professional, when someone tells you the opposition’s desire is bigger than your desire. But that’s what the gaffer told us and he had every right.”
An unwanted twist
Much to Wilder’s annoyance, not least because it has become a theme in recent weeks, United failed to hammer home an advantage before conceding soft and preventable goals. But what really irked him, as Duffy later acknowledged, was the fact City seemed to want it more. Deep in trouble towards the bottom of the table and low in confidence, Garry Monk’s side should have been there for the taking when Duffy fired the visitors in front.
But rather than fill United with confidence, the midfielder’s finish seemed to have the reverse effect. Roberts’ equaliser, from a poorly-taken corner, was a nothing short of a gift. The winner, despite being well-crafted, also raised questions about the quality of United’s defending, from, Duffy confessed, the very first press.
“It was the most important game of the season and, as the gaffer has told us, we didn’t turn up,” he said. “We went in front but didn’t control the game. We conceded sloppy goals which seems to be happening all the time. We need to work on that as a group.”
“They seemed to have a little bit more fight than us on the day, and that’s massively disappointing. We are fighting to get in the Premier League so our fight should be bigger than theirs. It’s up there with the most disappointing displays of the season, especially for it to come at this time.”
In normal circumstances, it would be impossible to criticise a squad for finishing in midtable less than 12 months after coming up. Indeed, even Wilder revealed he had been tempted to throw a consoling around his players as he scripted his post-match address. The trouble is, and much to United’s credit, there has been nothing normal about their first season back in the second tier since 2011.
Having climbed to the top of the rankings in November, after collecting some of the most prized scalps in the division, Wilder’s men looked destined to challenge for yet more silverware following last term’s League One title win. But a combination of factors, including inexperience and fatigue, has seen them pegged back by the likes of Brentford and Derby County who both lost at Bramall Lane earlier in the season. Performances, by and large, have remained of a high standard. Results, however, have become irritatingly inconsistent.
“It’s not teams cutting us open,” Duffy said. “Okay, there’s been a few games like Wolves and Fulham. You hold your hands up and recognise the quality when they do that.
“But it’s worse because when we look at the table and see some of the teams above us, we’ve cut them apart. If we don’t get there, then we’ll be sat somewhere in the summer watching the games and thinking: ‘How did they get in there?’”
The answer to his question
The answer to Duffy’s question was revealed by City whose relegation fears have now eased. When the 32-year-old opened the scoring against his former employers, Monk’s men were there for the taking. But when a scuffed corner was allowed to snake its way towards Roberts, and the centre-half turned it home, United because ragged and fractious. The early promise, which had seen Lee Evans go close to extending their advantage, disintegrated. City, who later saw Che Adams release Maghoma for the winner, grew in confidence.
“We didn’t control the game,” Duffy said. “It’s one of the worst feelings in the world when a team is winning and you can’t get the ball off them.”
“We have to work hard for our goals,” he continued. “We never get the scruffy cr*p ones. The other disappointing thing is the results against teams down the bottom. It’s never guaranteed. Birmingham are a massive club and have got some brilliant players. They’ve got a big wage bill. So we were never going to just roll into town, but their confidence is low and we gave them a big lift.”
With two fixtures remaining, against Preston North End and Bristol City, United’s generosity could prove costly.
“Mathematically it’s not gone,” Duffy insisted. “We’ll try to win the next game and the one after that. We’ll hope and see what happens.”