Nottingham Forest, their opponents on Tuesday, are one place behind them. Which isn’t too bad considering they couldn’t buy a win at the beginning of the season.
But size, as many readers of this column might or might not like to be told on occasion, definitely isn’t everything. Blackpool, who visit Bramall Lane this weekend, are preparing for the match ranked 11th. Luton Town, another team who could hardly claim to be well-endowed in the stature department, are even higher. In fact, if the English Football League called a halt to the campaign right now, they’d qualify for the play-offs. Which pretty much blows apart the argument, peddled surreptitiously by some directors, managers, players, supporters and journalists alike, that a high-profile name entitles them to success on the pitch. Because clearly it doesn’t.
The ‘Big Club’ argument is probably the most annoying out there. United, Sheffield United, are bigger than their namesakes from Manchester for most of those who will watch the meeting with Neil Critchley’s side tomorrow. St Albans City are the most important club on the planet if you happen to follow St Albans City. The same goes for fans of Hallam or Pan Community Reserves, who are currently propping up Combination Two on the Isle of Wight. And all of those teams have traditions and history.
What not all of them possess however - other than deep pockets - is a defined way of doing things. A coherent blueprint. One which has been publicly outlined or, through actions rather than words, is clearly apparent.
Luton do. And to a lesser extent, although maybe I’m doing them a disservice by saying this, the same goes for Critchley’s employers. Which is why they’re punching above their weight. Although again, that’s probably a little insulting. Because in terms of intelligent practices, they aren’t.
When they appointed Slavisa Jokanovic during the close season, United hired one of the most talented and capable coaching brains - if not the most talented and capable - available to them. He replaced one of most talented and capable the second tier has seen in recent years too. Chris Wilder. Being relegated from the Premier League, although he departed a month or so before that actually happened, is not the blot on his CV some folk pretend. Let’s be honest, our game’s business model means those who go up tend to stumble at some point. So you’d hope anyone entering the PL, either for the first time or following a prolonged absence, would factor that into their overall plan.
Forest have under-performed over an even greater period, despite the presence of some gifted guys at the helm. They include Martin O’Neill, Mark Warburton and Chris Hughton, who recently made way for Steve Cooper.
It’s probably because, looking in from the outside, they’ve tended to react to events rather than try and predict them. Things, ignoring the fashionable buzz phrases, largely get done on the hoof.
Unlike at Kenilworth Road where, although there’s still plenty of miles left in the campaign yet, they’re following a strategy which has been well-thought out. As the saying goes, if you fail to prepare then prepare to fail. Or at least struggle to maximise your assets and realise your potential.