Sheffield United: The quality that is fuelling a promotion push and why Barnsley should take a leaf out of The Blades' playbook

“You have to be able to suffer,” Poya Asbaghi said, following Saturday’s match at Bramall Lane.

Sunday, 20th March 2022, 1:00 pm

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He was attempting to explain why his Barnsley side - assured, coherent and effective at the beginning of the contest - had faded so badly after falling behind following the half-time break. But the Iranian could easily have been talking about Sheffield United, who prevailed because they know how to survive difficult periods. Not only during games, but also seasons.

Given everything that has been thrown at Paul Heckingbottom’s team in recent weeks - injuries, suspensions and a schedule which would make even a workaholic wince - they really shouldn’t be challenging for play-off qualification. But after successfully negotiating their way through a contest which, to the visitors’ credit, turned out to be far more tricky than the Championship table might suggest, United are still well-placed to secure a shot at promotion.

Sheffield United's players, including former Barnsley midfielder Conor Hourihane, negotiated their way through some tough periods at Bramall Lane: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

It would be a stretch to say Barnsley put them through the mill during the opening period of this contest. United did struggle though, as Matty Wolfe drew a superb reaction save from Wes Foderingham before Sander Berge opened the scoring and Morgan Gibbs-White, profiting from Oli McBurnie’s wonderful piece of improvisation, put the fixture beyond their neighbours’ reach.

“It’s vital,” Heckingbottom reflected later, as he talked about the afternoon’s “big moments”. “You’ve got to be able to take them and I think we did. There was Wes’ contribution and then other situations as well, such as when things weren’t going quite as we would have liked and of course the two goals.”

A second successive clean sheet, after conceding four times against Coventry City a week earlier, was encouraging. So too, of course, was the result. Particularly as Asbaghi’s men, despite battling against relegation at their other end of the division, made the short journey from Oakwell in dangerous form.

But the most impressive aspect of United’s latest performance was the mental fortitude they showed.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

Like Barnsley, they made a miserable start to the campaign. But Heckingbottom’s charges, including a stable of raw but talented youngsters, have learnt how to deal with adversity. Barnsley, by Asbaghi’s own admission, haven’t. If they can, and fast, one suspects United’s neighbours might keep their heads above water.

“Barnsley are in good form and they are finding their feet at the right time,” Heckingbottom, their former manager, continued. “A few weeks ago, I’d have said they were gone. But not now. They have a spirit and a settled way of playing. There are teams toiling more than them. They are in good form.

“Their fans have stuck by them and hopefully they can get out of it. They have players who have been in this position before.”

The same goes for United, Five of those selected by Heckingbottom are veterans of the squad which reached the top-flight three years ago although one of those, captain Billy Sharp, limped-off after damaging a hamstring just past the hour mark. If United can get him fit during the international break, and ensure their campaign is decided on the pitch rather than the treatment table, that knowledge could prove crucial. The same goes for the durability they have rediscovered since Heckingbottom’s appointment in November, when he inherited a group languishing in 16th position.

Poya Asbaghi, the Barnsley manager: Bruce Rollinson
Morgan Gibbs-White of Sheffield United celebrates his goal: Darren Staples / Sportimage