James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Stupid play-off questions and my own devious idea

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Let’s face it, football reporters can ask some pretty inane questions.

‘How do you feel?’ after a career-defining high or crushing defeat is a personal favourite. But not so much as ‘Can you put your emotions into words?’

Seeing as the interviewee’s response is going to be published in print, on television or radio, I’m always hoping they just stare vacantly at the person who posed it without twitching a muscle. No, I guess they can’t.

The same, as Nigel Clough has discovered on several occasions since Sheffield United’s qualifications for this season’s League One play-offs was confirmed, goes for ‘Who do you fancy getting?’

Okay, there probably is a slight chance he might choose to supply an answer. But, seeing as it would probably be pinned on the dressing room wall of the team selected, I can understand why discretion is the better part of valour.

Which isn’t a luxury the United manager’s rugby league counterparts can enjoy when their end of season competition gets underway thanks to the Mephistophelian concept of club-call. It must be positively excruciating for all concerned. Apart from, that is, neutral observers. Something for Greg Clarke and his colleagues at FL HQ to consider before next year’s shoot-out perhaps?

Even if Clough could choose United’s semi-final opponents then, even ignoring the possible psychological implications, analysing the options reveals no stand-out selection.

Assuming there were three points at stake in each of their last five meetings with the four potential candidates, the differentials are surprisingly slim. United have recorded an average of 1.8 per game against Swindon whose own return is 1.2. Versus Chesterfield, who visit Bramall Lane on Sunday, the respective figures are exactly the same whereas, during confrontations with Preston North End, both teams have claimed 1.2.

Only MK Dons boast a higher total, 1.8 compared to 1.2, although their meetings with United have always been notoriously tight. The victor has never prevailed by more than a single goal. Incidentally, despite possessing the division’s most prolific attack, Karl Robinson’s side has only scored one more than United since their trip to South Yorkshire in March 2013 ended with neither defence being breached.

The race to become the third team to reach the Championship really is, despite what some folk might claim, impossible to predict. Especially when you consider Town will be only entrant to have ever taken this route out of the third tier. And that was nearly two decades ago.

Twitter: @JamesShield1

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