If trying to win promotion really is a pressurised situation, if being tasked with scoring goals truly does create almost intolerable levels of stress then Billy Sharp, Sheffield United’s captain and centre-forward, will gladly suffer for the remaining eight matches of the Championship campaign.
“There’s always going to be turns but as long as we’re in there after the final whistle on the last day, that’s all that matters. I’d rather play under pressure because it means you’re actually playing for something. The only people who seem to make an issue of it are the media and you guys in the press.”
Sharp winks, smiles and tells us not to take it personally before turning his attention to the job at hand. Tomorrow
’s visit to Brentford, the first of eight games set to decide if United reach the play-offs, might not be the most glamorous date on the South Yorkshire club’s calendar. But with only two points separating them from sixth-placed Middlesbrough, who travel to Bramall Lane next month, it has assumed a significance few would have thought possible at the beginning of the season. When, Sharp reminds before casting another mischievous grin, United kept being told survival was the limit of their ambition.
“It’s a challenge we’re looking forward to,” he says. “Some people might not have thought we would be in this position but we’ve got to grasp it with both hands and take advantage of it.
“As a team point of view, we never looked at just staying up because we believed we were better than that.
“I think we’ve had a really good season. Huge credit to the gaffer and staff for driving us on because technically, mentally and physically we’re in really good shape.”
Sharp, whose 30 goals helped deliver last term’s League One title, enters this fixture having scored 13 in only 31 games since United’s return to the second tier. Securing back to back promotions, particularly given the riches on offer in the Premier League, would be the highpoint of a career spanning 14 years, three spells with United and which famously started in the Steelphalt Academy. This isn’t just professional, Sharp acknowledges. This is personal too.
“I didn’t really realise how special it is here until I came back for the third time,” the lifelong United supporter admits. “Scoring goals is something I’ve always loved doing, but for Sheffield United it’s just that extra bit special. It’s never been about the money for me. It’s nice to earn money, but it’s even better to be scoring goals. We don’t want to have any fear and we just want to go for it. Because we’ve got a brilliant opportunity.”
Although a defeat in West London would not signal the end of their hopes, in order to maximise their chances of seizing it United must surely repeat August’s victory over Dean Smith’s side. Brentford, cited by manager Chris Wilder as a example for his team to follow, will enter the fixture in chequered form after winning only once in five outings. But, having held Middlesbrough to a draw before the international break, are capable of mixing it with the best. Fulham, Aston Villa, Preston North End and Bristol City have all either been beaten or lost at Griffin Park.
“Brentford are a very good footballing team,” Sharp, who scored the only goal of the game when they travelled north on the opening day, says. “We played them at the start of the season and managed to get the three points that day. We took momentum, confidence and form into that game and got the three points and made a good start.
“We’re going to have to be very careful against them. They’ve progressed each season but whenever I’ve seen them they’ve played good stuff and will be dangerous opposition.
“They’ve got a few foreign players who are technically good. There are a few settled teams in this league and they’re one of them.”
United host Cardiff City, managed by Wilder’s predecessor Neil Warnock, on Monday before locking horns with Barnsley next weekend.
“I’ve looked at our eight fixtures and they’re great fixtures,” Sharp insists. “We’ve got a local derby away and games against teams around us. We’re still in with a great chance. It was tough to predict what we were going to do this season.
“We got off to a great start and we’re in with a good chance and if we can sneak in there (the play-offs) then we have a really good chance of promotion. We’ve got a great opportunity to go up and we’re fighting against six or seven teams for those spots. I really do think it’s that open. It wasn’t a few weeks back but that’s the twists and turns I was on about.”
“Nothing is ever easy,” he adds. “Especially not at this stage of the season so, really, it’s one step at a time.”