Sheffield United could be only 10 games away from facing Barcelona, Bayern Munich, PSG and Real Madrid
Twelve months ago, mentioning Sheffield United in the same conversation as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid would have been enough to prompt questions about your drinking habits or whether it might be wise to spend a little less time in the sun.
Bramall Lane was still in the midst of a Peroni-fuelled promotion celebration. But after returning to the Premier League following more than a decade away, the so-called ‘experts’ had already begun issuing doom-laden predictions about what awaited Chris Wilder’s side.
One year on, and with United preparing to play their first game since March because of the coronavirus crisis, those falling over themselves to warn that relegation was inevitable are now the ones who sound stupid. Seventh in the table with only 10 matches remaining, beating Aston Villa in the West Midlands later this month will leave United only two points outside the Champions League qualification positions with nine matches remaining.
“We’ve spoken amongst ourselves about what’s at stake,” Ben Osborn, the club’s midfielder, said. “The positions are being flashed up all the time on television, we can see where we are, and it’s a huge incentive.
“You can’t help but be aware of what we’re fighting for. Everyone here knows it.
“We can’t really begin thinking about what’s on offer until we actually achieve it. But we also understand this might be a once in a career shot for a lot of us and so we’ll be doing everything we can to try and make it happen.”
Osborn, aged 25, did his best to try and downplay the expectations surrounding United during a series of Skype interviews yesterday. The only difficulty was, as even he acknowledged, this is a squad which has constantly exceeded them since Wilder’s appointment. Only three years after lifting the League One title, and a little over one after clawing its way out of the Championship, the previously unfancied group that the manager has assembled now have a genuine chance of securing entry into the world's most prestigious club tournament. Even the consolation prize - a Europa League berth - would be a potentially life-changing experience.
Unbeaten in six matches when the fixture calendar was suspended, the decision to mothball the campaign could not have come at a more inopportune moment for United. But Osborn, detailing how Wilder’s players have already spoken about the importance of a positive mentality between now and the beginning of August - when the season is scheduled to finish - revealed they are ready to make personal sacrifices in order to achieve their professional ambitions.
“It’s going to be tough to carry it (the momentum) on because the whole world has changed since we last played a game,” he said. “But we’ve got to attack it like a mini-season, just think of everything being condensed, and hopefully we can do something special. We know opportunities like this don’t always come around and we’ll be doing whatever we can to try and seize it.”
“As far as I’m concerned, and the rest of the lads will tell you the same, from now on it’s just going to be two months or whatever of pure football,” Osborn continued. “Nothing else. There won’t be time to see your mates or probably even members of your family.
“But that’s fine. That’s the outlook of everyone here. We’re all on exactly the same page and that’s what we’ll be doing."
Osborn, a summer signing from Nottingham Forest, made his 12th appearance for United during the win over Norwich City - their last outing before the PL and the English Football League decided it was no longer safe to stage contests. Three of those have come in the FA Cup, with United scheduled to face Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the competition later this month.
“It was reiterated in training again today, the importance of everyone being ready,” Osborn said. “It’s not about an ‘11’ from here on in. To be fair, it never has been here. But with two and sometimes three games a week, everyone has got to be ready to step in and carry it on. Every single one of us. No exceptions.”
With players set to be ordered into quarantine if they test positive for the virus - a twice weekly screening programme has been introduced by all top-flight clubs - the message Wilder delivered to those under his command becomes even more important.
“The stuff that’s been put in place has been brilliant,” Osborn said. “The doctors have told us we’re probably safer here than going to the supermarket. But we’ve still got to take care of ourselves because we want to protect our families and we don’t want to miss games.”
Although Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and others hoping to hunt down Frank Lampard’s side have seen their top-four credentials enhanced by the recovery of key players from injury, Osborn insisted United enjoy a major advantage over many of those around them in the rankings.
“The moment I walked into this club, I could tell it was a club with the type of culture that can only be developed over a period of time,” he said. “The group is so tight, they’ve come up through the divisions together and still talk about pivotal games in League One and the Championship. The togetherness here is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. These lads have worked all their lives to get into the Premier League and are determined it’s not going to be a one off."