Midway through the season, when the loss of Paul Coutts coincided with results going south, Chris Wilder took heart from the fact his team’s performance levels rarely dipped.
Points might have proved difficult to come by. But, as Sheffield United’s manager frequently reminded before they returned to winning ways, the reigning League One champions were still giving established Championship clubs a torrid time during games.
Replicating that consistency, which becomes more difficult during the business end of a campaign, has become the focus of attention at the Steelphalt Academy this week as Wilder’s squad prepares to resume its bid for play-off qualification.
“They’ve shown it in training, they’ve shown it in other games, it’s just that consistency they need to show week in and week out,” he said, reflecting on last weekend’s draw with Nottingham Forest. “They (Forest) are a dangerous side but I told them at half-time that, if we upped our levels, they were there for the taking. But we didn’t show that.
“(Ben) Watson, (Jack) Colback in midfield, they had good players all around their squad and their team. So it wasn’t going to be straight-forward. Maybe some supporters are frustrated that we didn’t win and so am I. The players are too, even though Forest have got players who have done well in this division and higher.”
A healthy disrespect for big reputations and balance sheets has helped fuel United’s push for a top six finish after achieving promotion 11 months ago. Friday’s visit to Brentford, who were beaten at Bramall Lane on the opening day of the season, is expected to pose another test of their self-belief with the likes of Josh McEachran, previously of Chelsea, and Ollie Watkins, signed for £1.8m, among those at Dean Smith’s disposal.
“Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s all about risk and reward for us at this stage,” Wilder, whose side are two points outside of the play-off positions, said. “So we’ll continue to keep going for it but, in order to stay effective, we’ve got to show that quality.”
United’s preparations for the trip to the capital have been complicated by international call-ups for Enda Stevens, Lee Evans and David Brooks. Although Stevens and Brooks are scheduled to return to training on Monday, Evans will not arrive back in England until later next week with Wales set to play in the final of the China Cup on Monday. Evans, a January signing from Wolverhampton Wanderers, appeared as a second-half substitute during the 6-0 victory over the host nation in Nanning. With no direct flights between the Guangxi region and either Cardiff or London, Wilder could be forced to wait until the day before the fixture in London before assessing the 23-year-old’s availability.
Meanwhile, tickets are on sale for Tuesday’s UEFA under-21 Championship qualifier between England and Ukraine at Bramall Lane (kick-off 6pm).