James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Both Leeds and The Blades deserve to go up, so one must be given a helping hand

Admittedly, Sheffield United and Leeds do not like one another very much.

Tuesday, 9th April 2019, 11:46 am
Updated Thursday, 11th April 2019, 12:58 pm
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

But, given how the Championship has unfolded this season, it seems unfair that both do not enter this weekend's round of games virtually guaranteed Premier League status next term.

Although leaders Norwich City are busy sailing-off into the sunset - given their consistency at such a critical stage stage of the campaign, Daniel Farke's squad deserve to lift the title - the division's second and third placed teams are so far ahead of the rest, few could begrudge them a place in the top-flight too.

Eight points separate Chris Wilder's side from West Bromwich Albion in fourth, who are a further one behind Marcelo Bielsa's charges. Which, with only five matches remaining, appears pretty conclusive to me.

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Yet precisely because the race for the final automatic promotion berth threatens to go right down to the wire, on the face of it whoever misses out will enter the play-offs at a psychological disadvantage. In a competition supposedly designed to reward excellence across the entire campaign, that seems not only unfair but faintly ridiculous.

Yes, the rivalry between Chris Wilder's side and their counterparts from Elland Road makes the battle to be crowned runners-up even more fascinating. Especially for those viewing from afar. As the crow flies, less than 40 miles separate the two clubs. Yet, personality-wise, they are worlds apart. While Bielsa's men speak of "belonging" in the top two, United have adopted a much more humble approach.

Although Leeds' sense of entitlement might grate with the red and white half of the Steel City - and probably those of a Sheffield Wednesday persuasion too - that doesn't mean they have not proven themselves worthy of a seat at English football's top table. The same can be said of United.

Sheffield United deserve to be celebrating at the end of the season: James Wilson/Sportimage

Although neither can complain about how the play-offs are organised - they knew the rules and agreed to abide by them at the beginning of the campaign - the English Football League must surely examine ways of loading the end of season knockouts in favour of the club which finishes third in future seasons. Two semi-finals, taking over two legs and culminating in a shoot-out at Wembley, makes compulsive viewing for the wider public.

But, unlike in other sports, the model the EFL and its members adopted 32 years ago does little to reflect the overall finishing positions.

Even though time is obviously a factor - no one wants them to run into June - and that entering matches 'under-cooked' can also be a disadvantage, making the sixth and fifth placed clubs meet in a one-off fixture, taking place at the latter's ground, before visiting those who finish fourth a couple of days later seems a sensible proposal. Then, replicating an international break, the winner of that game can face the third ranked team in London shortly afterwards.

Such a structure seems more reasonable. Precisely because it reflects, and brings and appreciable but not decisive benefits, to those who finish higher up the table.

Marcelo Bielsa: Bruce Rollinson
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder: Simon Bellis/Sportimage