Sheffield United: Why Fulham was the ideal warm-up for Nottingham Forest play-off clash

Listening to Enda Stevens speak, about pressure, Paul Heckingbottom and Sheffield United’s filleting of Fulham, the more it becomes apparent that Saturday’s encounter was the ideal dress rehearsal for their play-off semi-final against Nottingham Forest.

Monday, 9th May 2022, 3:30 pm
Updated Monday, 9th May 2022, 4:31 pm

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Okay, so Stevens and his team mates ended up routing the Championship champions, with the Republic of Ireland international scoring the last of their four unanswered goals. But against quality opposition, United were forced to spend periods on the back foot. And having entered the match knowing that one slip could have disastrous consequences, everything they got they earned.

“It was the perfect ending and it was tough because, first-half, they came out and we had to deal with that,” Stevens says, reflecting upon the win over Marco Silva’s side which guaranteed United a shot at promotion. “We knew we were going to have to ride periods out, because they’ve got a huge amount of talent. But to be fair, so have we and that’s exactly what we did.”

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The stage is set

Having finished fourth in the table, one place and five points ahead of his own club, Stevens knows that Forest will pose a serious threat to United’s hopes of making an immediate return to the Premier League. This weekend’s first-leg at Bramall Lane, followed by next Tuesday’s return in the east Midlands, pits Heckingbottom’s men against opponents who entered the penultimate round of fixtures with hopes of pipping AFC Bournemouth to second. A narrow defeat on the south coast, which condemned them to the end of season knockouts, ended a run of four back to back wins.

“We know how good they’ve been,” Stevens acknowledges. “We’ve had two really difficult games with them in the league and we know the ability they’ve got.”

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Danny Lawson/PA Wire.

Still United, whose two encounters with Steve Cooper’s men this term ended in 1-1 draws, can take encouragement from the fact they took the lead in both encounters. And, unlike Forest, United completed their regular campaign schedule with a ‘live’ contest. Middlesbrough, Millwall and Luton Town, who face Huddersfield Town in the other semi-final, all prepared for their respective matches knowing, if United failed to dispatch the Londoners, they could leapfrog them in the rankings.

The instincts are sharp

Negotiating safe passage through their meeting with Fulham, coping with the occasion and facing an attack spearheaded by the ridiculously prolific Aleksandar Mitrovic, will have left United’s competitive instincts absolutely razor sharp.

Sheffield United's Enda Stevens and Iliman Ndiaye: Darren Staples / Sportimage

“It’s all about momentum and we didn’t want to be going out there and relying on anyone else slipping up,” says Stevens. “We wanted to take care of it ourselves. We set out to win every single game and, although we know that’s not going to happen, it’s how we approach things. That’s our mentality.”

“It’s all about momentum and that’s something we wanted to keep building and take in with us,” he continues, noting how United are preparing to face Forest on the back of three straight victories. “We’re happy that we’re going into the play-offs, two huge games, with momentum. We had to see out waves of pressure at the beginning and then implement our way of playing which is probably what we’re going to have to do again.”

The combinations

Sheffield United's Enda Stevens celebrates his goal against Fulham: Darren Staples / Sportimage

United’s work going forward was electric against Fulham, with Morgan Gibbs-White, Iliman Ndiaye and Sander Berge all on target before Stevens pounced following an interchange between John Fleck and the Norwegian.

“It was a great moment and I wasn’t really expecting Sander to pass it. I was just ball watching really, following my way in, and I wasn’t calling for it so I don’t know how he saw me because I wasn’t calling for it. What a brilliant pull back it was though.”

But, as Stevens explains, combining creativity with a resolute defence has been the secret of United’s success under Heckingbottom. Wes Foderingham's latest clean sheet was the 15th he has kept since the 44-year-old’s appointment six months ago.

“We take pride in those and I think Wes has got the Golden Glove now, so we wanted another one for him. He’s come in and been excellent all the way through. Our lads up front are unplayable when they’re at it. Morgs, Illy and Sander - to be fair to them, they won us that game.

“The lads up there, we know they can win us the game if the rest of us keep a clean sheet.”

Steve Cooper, the Nottingham Forest manager: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

The turnaround

Going precisely nowhere when he took charge in November, Heckingbottom’s presence has provided United with a renewed sense of purpose after they initially struggled to recover from the set-back of surrendering PL status last season. Sixteenth when the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief was unveiled as Slavisa Jokanovic’s successor, United have won more than half of their outings in all competitions under his stewardship.

“It’s definitely been a big turnaround,” Stevens says. “One that not many people might have been imagining at the start. He doesn’t want to rest on his laurels. He’s always pushing us, always wanting more and then giving us the belief that we can do it.”

The culture

That conviction, Stevens reveals, was best highlighted when a glut of injuries around the turn of the year threatened to derail United’s challenge.

“They didn’t help but we’ve never made excuses. We don’t look for excuses because we’ve got that mindset that the squad is good enough to achieve things and that’s what we want to do.

“Everyone here has played a part. Now we’ve got potentially three cup finals coming up, although first and foremost we’re looking at Saturday. The atmosphere was electric against Fulham. It gave me goosebumps. We’re going to need the fans to give us another big push again.”