There have been times when this season’s race for Championship play-off qualification has resembled an episode of the old radio comedy ‘It’s That Man Again’, which spawned the catchphrase: “After you Claude.”
Middlesbrough, without a win on their last three outings, seem determined to surrender sixth-place. Bristol City, Preston North End and of course Sheffield United, who earlier this week conceded a 92nd minute equaliser against Cardiff City, appear intent on turning down their invitations in favour of giving Tony Pulis’ side a helping hand.
Millwall, having taken 13 points from a possible 15, are the only team with real momentum among the chasing pack. And even they, despite taking the lead at Portman Road three days ago, were held to a draw by Ipswich Town.
Nevertheless, despite his squad’s knack of passing-up opportunities, Chris Wilder remains convinced they can push themselves to the front of the queue in the battle for a shot at Premier League football.
“If we keep playing this way, we’ll be tough opponents,” the United manager says. “That much I’m certain of. We’re going into the final month of what has been a long campaign and we’re right in the mix. There are six really big games coming-up.”
United contest the first of those at Barnsley on Saturday, before facing both Middlesbrough and then Millwall next week. On paper, the visit to Oakwell looks like a routine assignment. However, with José Morais’ men battling relegation and his own squad only a point behind their rivals from Teesside, the stakes are so high Wilder accepts it will be anything but.
“Everyone has something to play for. Be it going up, trying to stay up or even professional pride. There’s no such thing as a meaningless game or a gimme. Nothing is ever as straight forward as that.”
United discovered as much during Easter Monday’s meeting with City when, leading through Leon Clarke’s strike and in control of the contest, Anthony Pilkington’s volley denied them the victory their performance deserved. It was a crushing blow given the Welsh club had travelled north on the back of eight straight wins and in an automatic promotion berth.
Wilder’s demeanour during the post-match press conference betrayed their despair. But, now the disappointment has subsided, he believes they can take heart from their display if not the result. Numerous chances created and countless missed. But City, arguably the only serious challengers to leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers, were overwhelmed for long periods and unable to cope with either the calibre or the intensity of their work. Although they were held, United appeared back to their relentless best.
“We’re massively still in there,” Wilder insists. “We’ve run a team really close who will go very close to gaining automatic promotion. We’ve had a go in a positive way and I think our supporters have enjoyed how we’ve gone about it.
“All season, we’ve looked to take steps forward. We might have taken a few back but then we’ve taken ones forward again. We’ve got to keep belief in our morals and how we play the game. We’ll keep going right until the end of the season. They players know the importance of doing that.”
United enter their meeting with Barnsley, who lost at Bramall Lane earlier this season, unbeaten in their last five outings. But with four of those fixtures ending in a draw, room for improvement remains; particularly, after scoring only once against both Brentford and City, in terms of their finishing.
“Quite easily, with just a little bit more, we have a better record than four draws and a win from five games,” Wilder insists. I’d rather be in this situation than thinking ‘we need to work on this, we need to work on that’ but, yes, we do need to become a little bit more cuter. Take Cardiff’s goal, for example. We had the ball in their corner, gave it away, conceded a silly free-kick and then got punished.”
Demonstrating greater attention to detail, Wilder insists, will lead to better returns on the pitch as United, who could welcome Mark Duffy back from injury, chase a place in the top-flight.
“You look at it, we’re not scratching around for performances,” he says. “We’re not sat under the crossbar, we’re not making last ditch tackles, our goalkeeper isn’t making save after save and we’ve not been dominated all the way through.
“We’d rather be playing like this than wondering where the next result is coming from. But that, playing well and getting the results, is what will probably separate those teams who do something, who get something on their CV, and those who don’t. You need to marry performances up with wins. It’s something we always talk about.”